Video footage from Vice President Mike Pence’s Tuesday tour of the Mayo Clinic runs like a Sesame Street segment. A patient, a few health care providers, some men in suits—they’re all wearing surgical masks, in accordance with the clinic’s COVID-19 regulations. But one of these things is not like the others! Pence, the chair of the White House’s coronavirus task force, is speaking and breathing freely, his respiratory droplets floating around the room and landing wherever they please—including, in all likelihood, on the many men standing within a foot or two of his spewing maw.
This bizarre behavior is both shocking and expected now. Since the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Pence and President Donald Trump have made a big show of flouting the public health guidelines other Americans have been urged to follow. Long after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. surgeon general told everyone to stop shaking hands, Pence was still beginning meetings with rounds of flesh-pressing. Trump grabbed the hands of several CEOs on live television as he declared a national emergency over the very contagious coronavirus.
At the beginning of April, in response to studies that showed coronavirus transmission through asymptomatic carriers, the CDC began recommending the use of face coverings in places where social distancing is difficult, such as grocery stores. Trump said he wouldn’t be following the guidance, since it would be unseemly to be “sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk,” greeting “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens” while wearing a mask. But the Mayo Clinic is not the Oval Office. Nor is it a grocery store—although, it should be said, many grocery stores are currently turning away customers without face coverings. Masks are not recommended at health care facilities during a pandemic; they’re required. In a since-deleted tweet on Tuesday afternoon, the Mayo Clinic’s account stated that the center had “informed @VP of the masking policy prior to his arrival today.” Pence disobeyed the doctors’ orders and toured the facility barefaced.
It’s infuriating, and not just because of the exceptionalism it demonstrates. The White House ignored warnings of the coronavirus for weeks, played down concerns for months, and passed up its only opportunity to save the country from this medical and economic meltdown, on the off chance that it could keep public fears quelled and the markets chugging. Now, rather than admit they were wrong, and that something is wrong—that there is a virus to fear and vital precautions to be taken, lest the devastation that’s befallen New York City and elsewhere be visited on communities across the country—Pence and Trump are continuing to serve personal image over public safety, as if the responsible people wearing masks and keeping their hands to themselves are merely scaredy-cats overreacting to a minor blip in in the flu season.
In the Trump White House, wearing a mask or turning down a handshake would puncture the hypermasculine bluster that helped propel the president into office in 2016. Admitting one’s personal vulnerability to illness (and the country’s vulnerability to a pandemic) would contradict the impulse toward overconfidence and short-term self-preservation that’s been drilled into every two-bit businessman in America. And in the GOP death cult, taking minor precautions to prevent the spread of a dangerous virus is a betrayal of the notion that profits must be preserved at all costs to human life.
When Pence and Trump continued shaking hands after the rest of the country had been told to stop, I thought there was a part of them that wanted to be seen as courageous, boldly courting the little-understood virus with their daily greetings. Refusing to wear a mask is different. Face coverings help keep your own droplets from reaching others; they are far less effective at keeping others’ droplets away from you. That’s why the CDC only began recommending them for everyone once scientists discovered that asymptomatic carriers could be breathing droplets all over their communities without ever knowing they were sick. Masks aren’t self-protection. They’re an act of good-faith community defense.
With no selfish reason to wear a mask, and knowing everyone else would be wearing one to protect him, Pence seems to have had no reason to model considerate behavior at his highly publicized tour. His ostentatious barefacedness was a turn of reckless vanity, the likes of which Americans have come to expect from the Trump administration. More surprising, and perhaps more troubling, is the Mayo Clinic’s decision to let the vice president break pandemic protocol, then delete its tweet confirming the breach. The White House has a massive platform for its life-threatening coronavirus missives, and the country’s most famous health care facility isn’t willing to contradict it.