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Trump’s refusal to wear a mask is helping politicize a crucial tool for fighting virus

President Trump has been consistent about not wearing a mask in public, saying he is tested regularly and doesn't need one.
President Trump has been consistent about not wearing a mask in public, saying he is tested regularly and doesn't need one.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s top scientists recommend that all Americans wear masks when unable to social distance. But one highly visible American is defiantly ignoring the advice — and that might have big ramifications in the fight against COVID-19 as states reopen.

President Trump has taken great pains not to be seen wearing a mask, and in recent days started poking fun at his likely general election rival, Joe Biden, for covering his face while out to pay his respects to fallen troops on Memorial Day.

“I thought it was very unusual he had one on,” Trump said on Tuesday, after retweeting a post making fun of a photo of Biden in a mask. He then told a reporter to take off his mask while asking him a question, and blasted him as “politically correct” when he didn’t.

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Biden changed his Twitter avatar to the image of him in a mask, asserted wearing one demonstrates leadership, and called Trump a “fool” for his comments. “This macho stuff,” Biden said on CNN. “It’s costing people’s lives.”

Public health experts are watching the developments in horror, dreading the possibility that wearing masks, a crucial tool to reduce the spread of the virus as states begin loosening regulations, is becoming politicized. They fear the president’s antipathy to donning a mask — whether it be from vanity, a desire to project normalcy as he hopes to turbocharge the economy, or a tug-of-war with the press — could lead to the stigmatization of masks among more of his supporters.

“Until the president wears a mask, it’s not going to become fully normalized,” said C. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University. “It’s just incredibly stupid not to. The only reason not to wear a mask is to be a tough guy.”

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Horsburgh pointed out that because Trump is frequently tested for COVID-19, he’s not at high risk for spreading the virus. But not wearing the mask is a “slap in the face” to regular people of any political persuasion, who cannot be tested with the same frequency, he said.

“The virus doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or anything else,” said Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor University.

The hostility Trump has shown toward masks isn’t shared by a majority of the public. More than 70 percent of Americans think Trump should wear a mask when he comes into contact with others, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, and an even greater percentage report wearing a mask themselves at least some of the time.

If the president embraced masks, it could increase usage among his fans. Only about half of Republican men reported wearing a mask, compared to 68 percent of Republican women. Nearly 90 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of independents in the poll said they wear masks most of the time or all of the time when in public.

Trump has in the past encouraged people to cover their faces when close to others, but has been reluctant to do so himself. He brought a navy blue mask emblazoned with the presidential seal to a Ford factory in Michigan last week, but only put it on briefly while inside and out of the view of cameras.

"I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it," he explained later.

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Stephen Moore, an economist and a member of Trump’s economic task force, said he believes the president “doesn’t want to accelerate people’s fears” around the virus by being seen wearing a mask, since he’d like the economy to quickly return to normal. Trump has been pushing for the Republican convention to proceed as planned in August packed with thousands of attendees, and has accused states run by Democratic governors of reopening too slowly.

“I’m not going to pass judgment on whether Trump should wear a mask, but whatever it takes to get the economy going,” Moore said. “If it’s something as simple as wearing a mask, it’s not a big imposition.”

Experts say mask usage, particularly when indoors, will be key to keeping transmission rates down, as the country passes the 100,000-death toll from the disease.

“We don’t have a vaccine and we’re starting to reopen. So what are the two tools we have to slow transmission? They’re distancing and masks,” said Jeremy Howard, a research scientist at the University of San Francisco who led a review of the scientific evidence on mask usage. “If we don’t do those two things, you’re messing up your community for everybody else and you might literally be killing somebody.”

The United States has no tradition of widespread mask use to battle disease, unlike in South Korea and Japan, so leadership is even more important in changing behavior.

That’s what happened in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both countries mandated mask wearing in public back in March, part of an aggressive response that has kept their mortality rates low and allowed the countries to start reopening. Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Čaputová, captured the public’s attention by sporting fashionable masks, such as when she color-coordinated hers with the red dress she wore to her inauguration on March 21.

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More than 100 countries now require masks in certain public places. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that wearing a mask significantly blocked the spread of saliva droplets from people who are speaking, making it less likely they would infect others. According to one model created at the University of California Berkeley, if 80 percent of the public wore masks when in public, the spread of the virus would stop entirely.

“You look around the world at countries which widely used masks from early on in the pandemic and their increase in cases per week on average is 10 times less than other countries,” Howard said.

But Trump isn’t the only world leader to eschew a mask in public. United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson was photographed without a mask in March, and later fell ill with coronavirus. Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro has been seen with and without a mask on, but also defied social distancing in April by shaking hands with a large crowd of people.

Despite Trump’s aversion, mask usage is growing in the United States and other leaders are setting the example by being seen wearing them. Fifteen states, including Massachusetts, now require masks for people in public who can’t socially distance. More states have required employees to wear them while working inside.

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, stressed at his daily news briefing Tuesday the importance of wearing a mask as his state reopens, and his daughter unveiled the winners of a contest to make a public service announcement encouraging people to do so.

“This is almost a point of cultural communication. Wearing a mask is now cool. I believe it’s cool,” he said.

And Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota, a Republican, urged his state in an emotional speech last Friday not to make masks a political or ideological issue. “If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support,” Burgum said. “They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life who currently have COVID, and they’re fighting.”

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have worn masks in the Capitol in recent weeks.

The United States was slower than many countries to adopt mask usage because some public health officials downplayed their advisability for average people, given an acute mask shortage for health care workers. Now, the government’s top public health experts advocate wearing masks.

“I want to protect myself and protect others, and also because I want to make it be a symbol for people to see that that’s the kind of thing you should be doing,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN on Wednesday.

On Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that she has reminded the president and others in the White House to wear masks when close to other people.

“I’ve asked everybody independently to really make sure that you’re wearing a mask if you can’t maintain the 6 feet,” Birx said. “I’m assuming that in a majority of cases he’s able to maintain that 6 feet distance.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin