As promised, President Biden has taken office with a burst of activity, signing nearly 30 executive orders in his first few days. Some are mostly symbolic. Others signal future action. And some will bring prompt change to key parts of the economy. Here are five of Biden’s biggest moves so far.
A national Covid strategy. Nearly one-third of the orders Biden has signed so far relate to the coronavirus pandemic. Biden is building a muscular federal response to the crisis, a major shift from President Trump’s decentralized approach. The Biden plan will include a Pandemic Testing Board to establish unified standards across the country and boost supplies, which are still inadequate. There will be a federal vaccination campaign, with federally run mass vaccination centers and mobile units for rural areas. States and cities will get more funding and personnel for speedy vaccine deployment. The Biden administration will rebuild scientific agencies that Trump shackled or gutted. It will also establish procedures for reopening schools and provide more resources for local school districts.
It’s a mystery why Trump didn’t take these types of steps early in the pandemic. Public health experts and business leaders have stressed all along that massively scaled testing is crucial to safely operating businesses and reopening those forced to close. Vaccines will ultimately reduce the need for testing, but the vaccine rollout has been slow since it kicked off in December, with widespread immunity not likely until 2022 at the current pace. Congress has approved more than $4 trillion in coronavirus relief since last March, yet defeating the virus remains the single biggest stimulus measure there is. Biden is speeding the process.
Mask requirements. Biden hasn’t issued a national mask requirement, probably because it would be controversial and impossible to enforce. But he has issued selective mask rules, requiring them on planes, trains and intercity buses, and in airports. Federal workers must wear masks, along with anybody on federal property. This is important for two reasons. First, it aligns the federal government with the clear scientific evidence that masks help limit the spread of the coronavirus and reduce deaths. There will no longer be a foolish anti-mask message from the government that’s contrary to public health. Second, a federal requirement will make life easier for airlines and other transporters that have been trying to enforce their own mask requirements without the backing of federal policy. The government is now fully aligned with companies that must enforce mask requirements in order to operate.
Better Covid protections for workers. Another Biden order will beef up protections for workers at workplaces such as meat-packing plants that seem to have much higher coronavirus infection rates than the population at large. Biden hasn’t spelled out the new rules yet, but he’s directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to tighten standards, boost enforcement and crack down on employers that seem to be abusing the rules. The likely outcome, due in less than a month, is a far more aggressive workplace-safety agency than the one Trump oversaw, which declined to inspect many plants workers complained about and issued only minimal fines when it did spot infractions. Employers may now have to space workers farther apart, improve ventilation, and provide more protective equipment. Fines that were typically four-digit penalties under Trump could rise to $100,00 or more.
More food aid for the needy. Biden is boosting the weekly benefit for about 12 million families that receive federal food aid. That would amount to a 15% to 20% increase in assistance for a family of four, or about $50 per month extra. It might seem like a small amount, unless you’re trying to feed hungry kids. Biden also wants to let workers qualify for unemployment insurance if they quit a job because they feel unsafe on account of the pandemic.
Extending the federal eviction ban. Biden is extending the federal ban on evictions from expiring on Jan. 31 to March 31, and taking other steps to keep tenants in rental housing. This ban is imperfect, and it doesn’t stop everybody who can’t pay their rent from getting kicked out. It doesn’t provide money for back rent that piles up, nor does it help landlords who still need to pay mortgages and other expenses. But it’s a safety plug that should help some of the 14 million renters behind on payments get to the other side of the pandemic.
In addition to these actions, Biden backs a $1.9 trillion relief bill—which would be Congress’s fifth since last March—and more stimulus programs after that. He won’t get everything he wants, but as vaccinations and testing improve, less aid will be needed. There’s movement in the right direction.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.