US President Joe Biden on Thursday stepped up actions to combat the spread of Covid-19's surging Delta variant, asking every US federal worker to either declare they are fully vaccinated or wear masks and be tested.
"We have the tools to prevent this new wave of Covid from shutting down our businesses, our schools, our society as we saw happen last year," the veteran Democrat said in a speech on his administration's new initiatives.
The White House said ahead of the address that all four million federal employees and on-site contractors "will be asked to attest to their vaccination status."
Those who do not declare they are fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job regardless of location, physically distance from co-workers, and be tested either once or twice a week.
The moves stop short of a vaccination mandate for federal workers – something that was being considered as the administration was mulling ways to protect federal workers and set an example for the private sector.
But they mark a dramatic return to controversial restrictions that Biden had predicted would be relics of the past in June, when he proclaimed America would be able to enjoy a "summer of freedom" including more socializing and in-person celebrations.
Today, with hospitalisations and infections up nationwide, Americans need to remain vigilant, Biden said.
"We are not fully out of the woods, because what is happening in America right now is a pandemic, a pandemic of the unvaccinated," Biden said, in words sure to antagonise some who have declined to take the shots.
"If in fact you are unvaccinated, you present a problem – to yourself, to your family, and to those with whom you work."
Nevertheless, the president urged citizens not to politicise the issues of vaccinations or masks.
"This is not about red states and blue states. It's literally about life and death."
New directive to US military
With vaccination misinformation rampant, Biden said it was time for some "straight talk" in order to cut through the bogus fearmongering "with facts, with science, with the truth."
He virtually implored people to get the vaccine, as he described the pandemic as a heartbreaking "American tragedy."
"People are dying – and will die – who don't have to die," he said. "If you're out there and unvaccinated, you don't have to die."
Biden said he is directing the Pentagon to study adding Covid vaccinations to its list of required immunisations for members of the US military.
He also called on state and local governments to offer US$100 as an incentive for holdouts to get vaccinated -– a nod to what the White House described as successful cash-for-jab efforts already implemented in some states.
"If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them. We all benefit if we can get more people vaccinated," Biden said.
The rules regarding vaccinations or masking up and getting regularly tested should not just apply to federal workers, as Biden urged private sector employers to follow suit.
He also had a message for companies seeking federal contracts: "If you want to do business with the federal government, get your workers vaccinated."
The president also urged small and medium-sized businesses to take advantage of federal reimbursements for giving employees paid leave to get themselves and their family vaccinated.
And he called on districts to help get more adolescents vaccinated by hosting pop-up clinics in the weeks before schools reopen.
Biden's tough love comes as the Covid resurgence has reignited a furious debate over mask mandates in Congress, leading to an ugly feud between Republican and Democratic leaders. Several Republican lawmakers also are in open revolt against the mask-up rules.
When top House Republican Kevin McCarthy fumed Wednesday that mask mandates don't work, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi berated him as a "moron."