Joe Biden laid out his plans for fighting the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic in a primetime town hall on Tuesday, pledging to make 600m doses of the Covid-19 vaccine available by the end of July, saying teachers should be moved “up the hierarchy” of the vaccine queue, and predicting most elementary schools would reopen by the end of his first 100 days in office.
Seeking to move beyond his predecessor’s impeachment trial and reassure the American people that more aid was on the way, Biden addressed a small crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After landing on a slick, snow-covered tarmac in below-freezing weather, he took questions from a small audience of Democrats, Republicans and independents invited for a small, socially distant gathering at the historic Pabst Theater.
The event began with the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who hosted the event, asking when ordinary Americans could expect to receive the vaccine, to which Biden replied: “By the end of July we will have 600m doses, enough to vaccinate every single American.”
“Do you mean they will be available, or that people will have been able to actually get them?” Cooper asked, briefly referencing Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, who had said earlier in the day that it may “take until June, July and August to finally get everyone vaccinated”.
Biden said he meant they would “be available” by the end of July.
Asked later by Cooper when life would “get back to normal”, Biden offered a tentative but hopeful assessment. “By next Christmas, we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today.”
He said a year from now there would be significantly fewer people needing to socially distance and wear masks, but he added that experts advised him not to try to make predictions with certainty: “I don’t want to overpromise.”
The president also offered his his clearest statement yet on school reopenings, predicting that most elementary schools will be open five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office, but saying it would be tougher for high schools to reopen at the same rate because of the risk of infection.
Biden said the key would be smaller classes, more ventilation and strict policies for wearing masks and social distancing. He added that teachers and other education workers should be prioritized for vaccines: “We should move them up in the hierarchy.”
The town hall came as Biden is working to get a $1.9tn coronavirus aid package through Congress. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the measure next week.
Biden’s trip to Wisconsin, a political battleground state he narrowly won last November, comes as coronavirus infection rates and deaths are falling after the nation endured the two deadliest months of the pandemic so far. The White House is also reporting an increase in the administration of vaccines throughout the country after a slow start.
But Biden has stressed that the nation still has a long road ahead as thousands of Americans die each day in the worst US public health crisis in a century. The virus has killed more than 485,000, and newly emerging variants are complicating the response effort.
The Biden administration is trying to get enough Americans vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” and allow life to return to a semblance of normalcy, and discussion of his plans to speed up the vaccination process was a focus of the town hall. Asked about the challenges people face finding appointments online, Biden blamed the Trump administration, saying: “We wasted so much time.”
Other questions included one about better vaccine access for Black Americans, to which Biden replied his administration was working to ensure they were available closer to home through local pharmacies and with mobile vans in hard-hit neighborhoods.
Kerri Engebrecht, a mother from Wisconsin, asked Biden why her teenage son, who has a health condition that left him with “the lungs of a 60-year-old”, and others with health vulnerabilities had not be prioritised for the vaccine.
Biden noted that each state controlled its own eligibility process but offered to personally aid in the case. “I can’t tell the state you must move a group of people up. But if you’re willing, I’ll stay around after this is over and maybe we can talk a few minutes and see if I can get you some help,” he said, a line that was met with applause.
The president spoke to the need for more government relief to help people who are suffering economically and to get the country back to pre-pandemic employment levels.
The president reiterated his support for a $15 minimum wage, a proposal that has been included in the coronavirus relief package, saying “it would grow the economy … and benefit small businesses and large businesses”.
Asked how to ensure small businesses received the loans they need and that large corporations did not continue to reap the benefits, Biden blamed the previous administration for poor oversight of stimulus funds for companies and pledged that this time would be different: “The money is going to go to small businesses … the Mom and Pop businesses that hold communities together.”
But many GOP lawmakers continue to bristle at the price tag of a package that calls for sending $1,400 checks to most Americans as well as assistance for businesses, schools and homeowners and renters. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, on Monday told the Wall Street Journal that going too big could hurt Biden politically in the long run.
Biden has mostly stayed close to the White House since taking office nearly a month ago, leaving the Washington DC area only for weekend trips to his Delaware home and the Camp David presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland. In addition to his visit to Milwaukee, Biden is to travel to Michigan on Thursday to visit a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing facility.
The White House has been operating under strict social distancing rules, with most administration staffers working from home, mask-wearing required throughout the White House complex and limits on the size and duration of in-person meetings in the West Wing.
In choosing Wisconsin for his first trip, Biden picked one of the most politically divided states to test his pitch that he has the ability to bring the country together during one of the most difficult periods in recent history.
Ahead of the trip, the White House announced Biden was extending the federal foreclosure moratorium and mortgage forbearance through the end of June to help homeowners who are behind on payments due to the pandemic. The president on his first day in office extended the moratorium on foreclosures, first issued by Donald Trump, until the end of March.
While discussion of the pandemic dominated the town hall, the town hall also saw Biden address topics of racial justice, policing, student loan forgiveness, and the ongoing threat of far right violence in the wake of the January attack on the Capitol, which he called “a bane on our existence”.
The trip came three days after the conclusion of Trump’s second impeachment trial, and Biden sought to avoid discussing his predecessor. Asked whether he agreed with Nancy Pelosi’s criticisms that the Republicans who voted to acquit Trump were “cowards”, Biden said: “For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting