President Donald Trump has dismissed the idea of a national mask mandate, even as experts, including top health officials in the government, have emphasized that people everywhere should wear them to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Trump on Monday afternoon tweeted that “many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”
But when he was asked in a contentious Fox News interview Sunday whether he would consider a national mask-wearing order, Trump said, “No, I want people to have a certain freedom, and I don’t believe in that.”
He said he would leave such orders up to state governors.
Even as the scandal-plagued Republican president shrugged off the idea of a national order, top government experts in recent days have been urging everyone to wear masks to stop the virus, which has so far killed more than 140,000 people in the United States.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said last week in a JAMA Live interview, “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control.”
“I think the data is clearly there that masking works,” he said. “Masking is not a political issue. It’s a public health issue, and it really is a personal responsibility for all of us.”
He said the “most powerful weapons we have” in battling the coronavirus are masks, hand-washing, and “really being smart about social distancing. If we all really rigorously did this we could really bring this outbreak back to where it needs to be and shut down transmission.”
He said it was “very saddening to see some of these public health issues become so politicized.”
Redfield and two colleagues also wrote in an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Broad adoption of cloth face coverings is a civic duty.”
On NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, National Institutes of Health chief Francis Collins said he “didn’t want anybody to think that we take masks as something optional for people who want to protect themselves and people around them.”
He said, “If we want to see this current surge, and it’s a real surge, to turn around ... all Americans need to recognize it’s up to us. Wear a mask when you’re out of your house. That is protecting other people from you because you might be that person who’s infected and doesn’t know it yet and is spreading virus around. Do that social distancing thing. Don’t congregate in large groups, especially not indoors. And do the hand-washing. ... We can turn this around, and we don’t have to wait for some serious high-level edict to say so. This just makes common sense. At this point, it just ought to be something we all do.”
He said the best chance for America to beat the coronavirus is “for us to get together and do the right thing and stop fighting so much about the divide between different political perspectives, which is just getting in the way.”
He said it was “bizarre” that mask-wearing in the United States had become so partisan.
“Imagine you were an alien coming to the planet Earth and looking around,” said Collins. “You would be totally astounded, puzzled, amazed ... How could it be that something as basic as a public health action, that we have very strong evidence can help, seems to attach to people’s political party?”
On Monday, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, in an interview on Fox & Friends, also implored viewers to wear masks.
“It relies on the individual people of America doing the right thing, and that’s why I’m pleading with your viewers, I’m begging you: Please understand that we are not trying to take away your freedoms when we say wear a face covering,” Adams said.
“We can completely turn this around,” Adams said. “It is pretty simple. ... I really do believe that Americans will do the right thing.”
More than half of US states have mask mandates. Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker issued an order effective May 6 for people to wear masks in public places if social distancing is not possible.
Trump made it clear early on that he did not like the idea of wearing masks, and he has routinely refused to wear one, though he recently allowed himself to be photographed wearing one during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Other prominent Republicans have also downplayed the benefits of masks. That behavior, according to political scientists, has encouraged a partisan split in who wears masks, the New York Times reported.
Trump included a picture of him wearing a mask at Walter Reed in his Monday tweet.
Calls for a national mask mandate have come from a variety of experts who have cited scientific research. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is among the Democratic politicians who have urged a mandate.
“I think the science has become pretty clear that mask wearing can be a centerpiece to turn the corner in this pandemic,” Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, said. “At this point, there is no rational scientific debate anymore about the utility of wearing a mask.”
“With that in mind, it makes sense that we should all be wearing masks,” he said. “It seems to me like all the visible signs are in agreement.”
Galea joined the deans of public health at The Ohio State University and New York University in writing a recent opinion piece in STAT arguing for a national mask mandate.
“As national infection rates rise, along with hospitalizations and deaths, an unambiguous national mask mandate is becoming more urgent,” they wrote. “It should apply to every public space in the nation, with an exception for outdoor exercise or recreation with appropriate physical distancing. It must apply to every person over the age of two. And it must remain in effect until the epidemic recedes. This may mean that Americans will be compelled to wear masks for many months or until an effective vaccine is developed and widely distributed.”
“Masks are a small price to pay to prevent even greater disaster. Mask wearing does not represent a magic bullet, but having everyone wear masks is a step in the right direction,” the authors argued.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.
Martin finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.