The Washington Post spoke with six individuals familiar with the discussions.
According to the sources, the talks are only in a preliminary phase. The results of the talks could be a simple messaging campaign to encourage more mask usage, while others – particularly officials dealing with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – are considering whether new official mask guidance is needed.
The officials said the White House is largely taking a hands-off approach to the talks, leaving the decision on updating mask guidance primarily to the CDC.
“At the White House, we follow the guidance and advice of health and medical experts,” Kevin Munoz, assistant White House press secretary, said. “Public health guidance is made by the CDC, and they continue to recommend that fully vaccinated individuals do not wear a mask. If you are not vaccinated, you should be wearing a mask.”
One of the ideas under consideration is asking people to wear masks indoors when vaccinated and unvaccinated people are likely to mix, such as in malls or movie theatres.
However, it is unclear how such a suggestion would make a difference if it is not mandated; individuals who are resistant to taking the vaccine are more likely to oppose mask use anyway, and would likely forgo using the coverings unless forced.
Other ideas, like requiring Americans to show proof they have been vaccinated before they are allowed entry into businesses, have been unpopular with the White House, likely due to the expected backlash and legal challenges such measures would generate.
The US has seen 40,000 new cases of coronavirus a day, a substantial increase over the low of 11,000 cases a day in June.
Health experts believe the increase is due to the highly contagious delta variant, and while “breakout” cases of vaccinated people catching the virus have been reported, the new cases have largely been among the unvaccinated.
The existing coronavirus vaccines are believed to be approximately 90 per cent effective at stopping the Delta variant of the virus.
Fewer people are also getting the vaccine, further complicating the issue. Only 500,000 people a day are getting shots now, despite only about half of Americans being fully vaccinated.
It is unclear if a new mask mandate would result in backlash from vaccinated individuals, as the efforts to stop the spread of the Delta variant are primarily aimed at protecting unvaccinated people. The vaccine has been widely available since February and early in the pandemic there was widespread backlash among primarily conservative Americans against mask mandates and lockdowns. Vaccinated people could see renewed restrictions as forcing them to consider the safety of individuals who did not consider theirs earlier on in the pandemic.
A renewed mask mandate would also undermine Joe Biden‘s messaging that the virus is in retreat, and would represent a failure for the administration to reach its vaccination goals and curb the coronavirus.
There have been some positive changes in mask messaging. Earlier this week a number of conservatives, including lawmakers and media figures, have shifted their views on the vaccine and urged their audiences and constituents to take the shot.
Fox News’s Steve Doocy and Sean Hannity urged Americans to take the shot, and Congressman Steve Scalise and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis both promoted vaccination. Other figures, like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, have continued to undermine the vaccination effort, while others, like Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen and Senator Tommy Tuberville, have supported the vaccine but claim the White House needs to credit Donald Trump more in order to convince conservatives to take the shot.
The change in tone is likely indicative of a realisation among major corporations that failing to curb the variant could kneecap the still recovering economic recovery in the US.