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.
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.
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.
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.