On Tuesday, President Joe Biden walked to a podium set up outside the White House to announce the new CDC guidance on mask-wearing when outdoors.
The key part of the guidance was this: “Fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask outdoors, except in certain crowded settings and venues.” Which Biden paraphrased this way in his speech: “Starting today, if you’re fully vaccinated, and you’re outdoors … and not in a big crowd, you no longer need to wear a mask.”
And yet, Biden wore a mask when he walked up to make the announcement – although, when he finished his remarks, he did not put it back on until he went back inside.
Which conservatives, um, took notice of.
“Biden wears face mask outdoors to hail CDC guidelines that say you no longer need to,” read the headline on the New York Post’s piece on the seeming contradiction.
“Biden Wears Masks Outside, Alone,” was the Breitbart headline.
“Why did Biden walk to the podium outdoors wearing a mask to announce that we no longer have to wear masks outdoors,” tweeted conservative Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen.
For his part, here’s how Biden explained his thinking in an exchange with a reporter after the announcement.
Reporter: “You chose to wear a mask as you walked out here. What message were you sending by wearing a mask outside alone?”
Biden: “By watching me take it off and not put it back on until I get inside.”
Which means this: Biden wanted to send a symbolic message. He wanted to wear the mask out, take it off and not put it on again – showing people that it is OK to do just what he did. Whether you dismiss that move as political theatrics, virtue signaling or using the White House bully pulpit effectively seems to, largely, depend on what political party you identify with most closely.
Which honestly is ridiculous – and speaks to what I believe is one of the most harmful aspects of Donald Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic as president: The politicizing of mask-wearing.
Biden, it’s worth noting, drew criticism from both ends of the mask debate during his speech to Congress on Wednesday night. Some questioned why he wore a mask at all given that the vast majority of members of Congress are vaccinated and social distancing protocols were being enforced. Others fretted about the message Biden sent by chumming around with members – in close quarters – after the speech.
“He walked in, had his mask on, and only took it off to speak, which we have seen him do over and over again,” principal deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday. “So, there’s nothing new there. People were socially distanced.”
You’ll remember that Trump spent months downplaying the need to wear a mask.
In fact, the day – yes the SAME day – that Trump announced in April 2020 the CDC’s updated guidance on the necessity of wearing mask, said this of his own plans: “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it. Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I just don’t see it.”
He also refused to allow himself to be photographed wearing one. On a trip to a Ford plant in May 2020, Trump was asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask and said that he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
Then on Memorial Day, the President retweeted this from Brit Hume in which the Fox News personality appears to mock former Vice President Joe Biden for his appearance while wearing a black mask during a wreath-laying ceremony.
Even during the general election debates with Biden, Trump defaulted to using mask-wearing as a political weapon. “I wear masks when needed. When needed, I wear masks,” Trump told debate moderator Chris Wallace, adding: “I don’t have – I don’t wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
This is the context into which all of Biden’s actions – and public pronouncements – on masking (and Covid-19 protocols more generally) land. An environment poisoned with politics by his predecessor.
Here’s what we need to work to remind ourselves of: Mask wearing should NEVER have had any political significance to it. It is a public health matter, not a political one. Always has been. And always should be.