Joe Biden said today that he advised his family to stay off airplanes and subways because of the swine flu, a remark that forced the vice president's office to backtrack, the travel industry to cry foul and other government officials to try to massage Biden's message.
"I would tell members of my family - and I have - that I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now," Biden said on NBC television's "Today" show.
Biden, who has a reputation for off-the-cuff remarks, went beyond any precautions recommended by the federal government. In discussing his personal advice to his family, he said simply, "That's me."
Within two hours, Biden's office issued a statement backing off the remarks and suggesting he was talking about travel to Mexico.
"On the 'Today Show' this morning, the vice president was asked what he would tell a family member who was considering air travel to Mexico this week," said spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander. "The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways."
Biden, who has three grown children and five grandchildren, was asked whether he would advise his own family against flying to Mexico on a commercial flight.
"It's not just going to Mexico, if you're in a confined aircraft and one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft," Biden said on NBC. "That's me. I would not be at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding nonessential travel to Mexico. But it isn't recommending that people avoid other travel because of the swine flu.
The airline and travel industries were quick to criticize Biden's remarks.
James May, president of the Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, sent Biden a letter expressing "extreme disappointment at your suggestion that people should avoid air travel."
American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith declined to comment directly on the vice president's remarks, but said, "To suggest that people not fly at this stage of things is a broad brush stroke bordering on fear mongering."
The US Travel Association President Roger Dow urged the public to "heed the advice of medical experts" and gently chided the vice president without specifically mentioning him.
"Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important economic activity," Dow said in a statement.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offered to rewrite Biden's words for him: "I think the vice president ... if he could say that over again, he would say if they're feeling sick, they should stay off of public transit or confined spaces because that is indeed the advice that we're giving," she said on MSNBC.
On Radio Iowa this morning, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin was less forgiving, calling it "a very unfortunate statement by the vice president."
During his decades as Delaware senator, Biden was a regular on Amtrak, riding the train from Wilmington to Washington.
Asked on NBC's "Today" show whether the U.S. government should close the border with Mexico, Biden said health authorities advise that would be impractical and noted the new flu is already in the US and several other nations.
Instead, Biden said, the focus should be on slowing the spread of the virus through groups of people in close quarters, such as airplanes, malls, stadiums and classrooms.
"Closing the classroom and closing the border are two fundamentally different things," he said.