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Debate over masks uncovers deep White House divisions

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Pedestrians wearing face masks crossed the street near Union Square in New York last week.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Pedestrians wearing face masks crossed the street near Union Square in New York last week.

WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump said today that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was urging all Americans to wear a mask when they leave their homes, but he immediately undercut the message by repeatedly calling the recommendation voluntary and promising that he would not wear one himself.

“With the masks, it is going to be a voluntary thing,” the president said at the beginning of the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House. “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it. It may be good. It is only a recommendation, voluntary.”

“Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens — I don’t know,” he added. “Somehow, I just don’t see it for myself.”

Trump’s announcement, followed by his quick dismissal, was a remarkable public display of the intense debate that has played out inside the West Wing over the past several days as a divided administration argued about whether to request such a drastic change in Americans’ social behavior.

And it came at a particularly contentious briefing where the president insulted reporters, jousted with his own administration and returned to pugilistic form.

Trump again dismissed the recommendation of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for a national stay-at-home order, saying he would leave such demands to the governors. But he did say that the federal government would pay hospitals to treat coronavirus patients, instead of allowing people to buy heavily subsidized insurance on the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges, as many Democrats have urged.

The mask debate has played out in public and in private. Trump said Americans who choose to comply with the CDC’s recommendation should use a basic cloth or face mask, not medical- or surgical-grade masks that are used by hospital workers and emergency workers. He also said people must still follow social distancing guidelines, which he called the “safest way to avoid the infection.”

Senior officials at the CDC have been pushing the president for days to advise everyone — even people who appear to be healthy — to wear a mask or a scarf that covers their mouth and nose when shopping at the grocery store or while in other public places.

The embrace of such a policy would be one of the most visible alterations to social habits in the United States in the face of a pandemic that has infected more than 1 million people around the globe and killed nearly 60,000 — a physical manifestation of fear that has gripped millions of Americans.

The issue became more urgent after the CDC’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, said that as many as a quarter of those already infected may show no symptoms but still contribute to “significant” transmission. Local officials in New York and Los Angeles have already called for people to cover their faces in public. Today, the governor of Pennsylvania called on his state’s residents to wear masks when they go out.

The surgeon general, Jerome Adams, stood next to the president today and urged Americans to comply.

“The virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity, coughing, speaking or sneezing, even if those people were not exhibiting symptoms,” Adams said. “In light of this new evidence, the CDC recommends and the task force recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult.”

But some White House officials have resisted and Trump today time and again said it was voluntary.

Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, who has been wearing a mask during meetings in the White House, has shown people studies that advocate the wide use of masks, one official said. Other officials believed that was excessive.

One top CDC official who has seen emails from people in the West Wing said that some of Trump’s advisers were pressing him to recommend mask wearing only in “areas of widespread transmission.” That worried CDC officials because the virus has already spread, largely undetected to most parts of the country. Wearing masks or other face coverings everywhere, including in places where there are few reported cases, will help slow the rate of infection, they believe.

The result was been a policy stalemate that played out on live television.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, expressed serious reservations Thursday, saying that asking all Americans to wear masks could inadvertently signal that Americans can abandon social distancing and return to public life as long as they wear a mask.

“We don’t want people to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m wearing a mask. I’m protected and I’m protecting others,’” Birx said at the daily briefing. Others at the White House have expressed worry that asking all Americans to wear masks could heighten shortages for doctors, nurses, emergency workers, even if they urge people not to seek the highly protective, and scarce, N95 masks used by hospital staff.

Some conservatives have said they did not believe that Americans would ever accept wide usage. Michael Brendan Dougherty, a conservative writer at National Review, wrote that Americans would “quickly feel that masks are ridiculous, menacing, or an imposition on life, then conclude they must be temporary.”

Trump’s personal hesitance also underscored questions about whether other politicians or media personalities would choose to wear masks while appearing in public.

Outside the White House, the move toward masks accelerated quickly this week. Today, after Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, urged residents of his state to wear masks if they ventured out of their homes, the state’s health secretary reiterated that staying at home — away from groups of people — remained the most effective way to ensure that the virus would not spread.

Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., has been one of the most vocal supporters of wearing masks. In an interview from the basement of his home, where he is isolating because of his recent contact with lawmakers who tested positive for the virus, he said wearing masks will help limit the impact of the virus.

“It just makes sense to have some kind of physical barrier that would reduce the droplets that are released when people speak and breathe,” Toomey said. “The idea is to protect everyone else. My mask protects you. Your mask protects me.”

Toomey said he spoke with Trump on Wednesday to urge him to recommend masks for everyone. He said the president seemed “very sympathetic” to the idea but did not reveal his course.

“He did acknowledge that it was under very serious consideration and the subject of fairly intense discussion among his team,” Toomey said.

He said it was “premature” to conclude that Americans would not wear masks. “Who’s to say that people won’t respond in a way that this becomes acceptable and normal?” he asked.

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