Vice President Mike Pence deflected a question on Sunday about any federal mandate requiring Americans to wear masks amid reports of large increases in COVID-19 infections in certain states – saying that the White House wants to “defer to governors” on whether or not to order people to cover their faces in public.
“One of the elements of the genius of America is the principle of federalism, of state and local control,” Pence said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We’ve made it clear that we want to defer to governors. We want to defer to local officials, and people should listen to them.”
Guest host John Dickerson questioned Pence about the stances, and argued that “the virus doesn’t know federalism” and that the pandemic is “a problem that requires a coordinated national result, which is what these outbreaks are showing.”
“If we’d have taken that approach, we’d have never had the success that we had in the greater New York City area,” Pence responded. “We’d have never had the success in Michigan or New Orleans because, from early on, we worked closely in partnership with governors to make sure that they had what they needed when they needed it, tailored to the unique circumstances in their states.”
The debate over whether or not to wear masks – and if they help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus – has been roiling since the early days of the pandemic in the United States, with many conservative pundits arguing that they impinge on personal freedoms and even weaken the immune system. The science behind masks – and staying inside – weakening the immune system, however, is scant, and most public health officials say that facial coverings are one of the key ways people can help slow the spread of the contagion.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Some states and local communities require them.
Early on, the government’s no-mask message was unequivocal. As the first known COVID-19 infections were identified on U.S. soil, top public health officials insisted masks should be reserved for front-line workers.
Later, the CDC issued its recommendation for cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures were difficult to maintain. But President Trump immediately undercut that guidance by flatly stating that he wouldn’t be following it.
He told The Wall Street Journal this month that some people wear masks simply to show that they disapprove of him.
Now, the mask debate is heating up in the South and West, where infections are surging to levels the country hasn’t seen since April, when the Northeast and Midwest were particularly hard-hit.
In Arizona, Florida, and Texas, with GOP governors and huge spikes in infections, there’s been a hesitance to require people to wear masks in public spaces.
But in California, Nevada and North Carolina, with Democratic governors and increasing infection levels, rules requiring masks took effect this past week.
The divide on masks is stark even within Republican-leaning Sun Belt states, where some big city Democratic mayors have imposed their own mask rules.
Further complicating the messaging is that as Trump questions the effectiveness of masks and refuses to wear one in public, Surgeon General Jerome Adams has taken to Twitter to declare that “I show my patriotism by wearing a face covering in public!”
The dithering over face masks has unnerved public health experts as studies suggest that the coverings could have a dramatic impact on limiting the virus’ death toll.
“The public health community, I think, has been very clear that face masks can help reduce the spread of the virus,” said Ayaz Hyder, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University. “The problem is you send mixed messages when the person at the top of the federal government is saying, ‘Nah, I’m OK.’”
The political calculations of the debate are playing out all over the country, and evident in public polling.
While most other protective measures such as social distancing get broad bipartisan support, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they’re wearing a mask when leaving home, 76 percent to 59 percent, according to a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott this month issued an executive order prohibiting municipalities from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who refuse to wear masks. But he has not opposed efforts by some Texas cities and counties to require businesses to impose face mask rules for their employees.
On Friday, members of the White House coronavirus task force once again urged Americans to practice social distancing, frequently wash their hands, and wear face coverings in public spaces.
But Pence sidestepped questions about whether the president’s refusal to wear a mask and his large campaign gatherings were sending conflicting messages.
“Even in a health crisis, the American people don’t forfeit our constitutional rights,” Pence said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.