Views on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic have become increasingly polarized, yet another political issue that for many culture war combatants is filtered through an ideological lens. The left has been almost uniformly — and loudly — in favor of sacrificing many personal liberties in exchange for containing the virus’ spread.
The right has been divided, but the vocal activist wing of conservatism that has enormous influence on social media and Fox News, has been far more willing to attack the various infringements on where people can go and what they have to wear. The mask has become the ultimate symbol of this new cultural and political divide.
For progressives, masks have become a sign that you take the pandemic seriously and are willing to make a personal sacrifice to save lives. Prominent people who don’t wear them are shamed and dragged on Twitter by lefty accounts. On the right, where the mask is often seen as the symbol of a purported overreaction to the coronavirus, mask promotion is a target of ridicule, a sign that in a deeply polarized America almost anything can be politicized and turned into a token of tribal affiliation.
The cleavage was made clear this week when Mike Pence toured the Mayo Clinic without wearing a mask. Pictures from the event showed the maskless vice president surrounded by doctors and patients with face coverings. The story dominated cable news. Liberal hosts shamed Pence for setting a bad example or behaving recklessly. Conservatives attacked the left’s mask obsession as another example of the creeping nanny state.
Laura Ingraham warned that “social control over large populations is achieved through fear and intimidation and suppression of free thought” and “conditioning the public through propaganda is also key, new dogmas replace good old common sense.” But the pro-mask voices won, at least for now. On Thursday, Pence toured a ventilator factory in Indiana while wearing a surgical mask.
In Washington, mask-wearing has become deeply political and inconsistent. The White House is divided along some familiar lines. In early April, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first issued its recommendation that Americans wear “cloth face coverings” — because surgical masks are still in short supply — Trump immediately blurted out that he wasn’t interested.
|Ivanka Trump still looks gorgeous with a mask.|
The disagreement apparently extends to the first family. Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump occasionally like to send subtle hints when they differ with the president. Sure enough, soon after Trump said he wouldn’t be wearing a mask, both Melania and Ivanka posted pictures of themselves on social media promoting the virtues of covering your face.
Visiting the White House, it's striking how many people don’t wear masks. Very few Secret Service agents have them on. Some days, even the staff member performing temperature checks on reporters doesn’t wear one. In contrast, most, though certainly not all, members of the media wear some kind of face covering while in the press workspace or waiting to cover a presidential event. But very few keep them on during the televised briefings.
Inside the building it is a relatively mask-free zone. At one meeting this week that included chief of staff Mark Meadows and some 20 other White House officials, including Secret Service agents, nobody from the White House was wearing a mask or other face covering.
“It’s a personal choice. That's the whole point of the guidelines in the first place. If you want to wear one, you can wear one," said one White House official. "It's not a conscious effort to try and raise the alarm or not raise the alarm."
Another White House official emphasized that the CDC guidance is “voluntary” and that most staffers don’t cover their faces while at work. “I don't wear one when I'm here, but I take an Uber back and forth to work every day because the Metro and buses are so terrible right now. ... But when I’m here on complex, just sitting at my desk, in a meeting where there's plenty of distance, I don't wear one.”
There are a few exceptions in the West Wing. As POLITICO previously reported, Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, has sometimes worn a mask. Maybe he knows something: his wife is a former CDC microbiologist.
The cleaning crews at the White House are another exception. “A ton of cleaners are always wearing a mask and there seems to be a lot more of them around,” said a third White House official, "especially in the West Wing.”
Face coverings are not usually for personal protection. Unless the mask has a filter, like an N95 mask, the CDC says it won’t offer protection from possibly inhaling the coronavirus. But in situations where social distancing is harder to do, like a workplace or grocery store, a mask reduces the ability of an asymptomatic infected person to spread the virus.
Pence argued that because he’s regularly tested, he wasn’t putting anyone at risk by not wearing a mask at the Mayo Clinic. The counterargument is that the clinic requires all visitors to wear a mask and that Pence’s nonchalance about the policy undercuts the public health campaign to encourage covering up.
|God will protect our Pence The Brave, not a stupid-looking face mask.|
The virtue signaling seems to have spilled over to Capitol Hill. During a vote on the latest coronavirus relief package last week, POLITICO reported that about a dozen Republicans declined to wear masks on the House floor. One of the maskless lawmakers, Chip Roy, a Republican from Texas, said he wasn’t making an ideological statement and that members were “spaced out” on the floor, precluding the need for covering his face.
When asked whether it was a cultural or ideological statement, another maskless Republican, Ralph Abraham, a veterinarian turned family doctor from Louisiana, gave an emphatic “Nooo, nooo!” Not all of the maskless behavior on the right seems ideological.
Some members just seem to be struggling to adapt to new rules like everyone else. A POLITICO reporter spotted one masked Democratic member who actually removed his mask when he encountered a colleague, and they posed for a picture together.
But there is clearly a growing partisan split. Democratic leaders in the House have made more of a point about wearing masks on camera than Republican leaders. Democrat Jim Clyburn donned one at a news conference on Thursday with Nancy Pelosi, who generally uses her scarf as a mask. None of the top three House GOP leaders wore masks at an outdoor news conference at the Capitol last week.
|Nancy "Outlaw" Pelosi with a scarf-facemask.|
Some people seem as worked up about face coverings as others are about tax policy or abortion. In response to a recent POLITICO report about the Pence imbroglio, one person on Twitter wrote, “Get over it, I don’t wear a mask either and I NEVER WILL!”
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Only stupid and diseased need to wear face mask