To Combat The Pandemic, Biden Will Aim To Depoliticize Mask-Wearing

Nov 24, 2020
Originally published on November 25, 2020 6:25 am

It was Memorial Day when then-candidate Joe Biden made his first public appearance since the coronavirus shut down in-person campaigning. Before he went out to place a wreath at a veterans memorial in Delaware, Biden and his team decided he would wear a mask. It wasn't a difficult decision, an aide said when asked about the choice.

"Wearing one of these masks when you're outside is not a partisan issue," Biden said a couple of days later during a livestreamed event. "It is a matter of protecting other people." New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also indicates it protects the wearer of the mask as well.

The same week as Biden's remarks, President Trump retweeted someone mocking the Democrat for wearing a mask and teased a reporter for wearing one at a press conference, asking him to take it off to hear him, and when he didn't, saying it was "because you want to be politically correct."

The lines were drawn.

In the months since Memorial Day, face masks have become a potent symbol of the political polarization over the coronavirus in the United States. The division shows up in polling. Gallup found that while a clear majority of Americans say they're "highly likely" to wear masks in public indoor spaces, Republicans are less likely to do so.

As the president-elect prepares to take office in January, he's already talking to governors about trying to implement a national mask mandate, or as close to it as possible. But to succeed, Biden is likely going to need to find a way to depoliticize masks.

That's going to be tough because "it is so ingrained in our collective psyches," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. Luntz said the key to breaking through resistance is not to preach, but to listen, and to personalize it.

"Do it in a way that doesn't look like you're being political," Luntz said. "Do it in a way that, where people will feel like this is being done for them, genuinely for them."

In recent days, as the coronavirus surges to record levels, governors all over the country have held press conferences delivering difficult messages about restricting the size of gatherings and urging people to celebrate Thanksgiving only with those in their households. They've announced new or expanded mask mandates, and they've tried out their own methods to take down the political temperature and save lives.

"Some straight talk: There are two extreme and distinct camps out there," said Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, as he announced new COVID-19 restrictions last week. "Most of the public isn't part of either camp. And by the way, neither am I. Masks work. Please wear them."

As he pleaded with residents to wear masks, Ducey walked through the science, highlighting the new CDC information about masks helping to protect the wearer, too.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey listens during a roundtable discussion last month in Phoenix. "Masks work. Please wear them," Ducey, a Republican, said at a recent news conference.
Matt York / AP

In neighboring New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, was early to require masks. So she's had plenty of time for creative thinking about getting people to go along with a mandate they don't like.

"You know I said, 'Masks are not political. If you want to do something political, write it on your mask,' " Lujan Grisham said in a phone interview. She equated it to sports jerseys. Why not use your mask to represent what you believe in too?

"I do think that actually motivates people to wear them because you get to make a statement," she said.

And right then, her communications director, Tripp Stelnicki, jumped on the line with an example. He saw someone in the state wearing a mask that said: "My governor is a dummy."

"So I would argue that that makes me pretty smart if that got you to wear a mask," said Lujan Grisham, who said she is cool with just about any message short of hate speech, as long as someone is wearing a mask.

Along the same lines, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, also a Democrat, said at a recent press conference that he wants people to wear masks "and stay healthy if for no other reason that it'll keep you healthy to vote against me in two years."

In an interview, Walz explained he's trying to give people permission to say they disagree with him while still actually wearing a mask.

He said when people complain to him about the mask mandate in his state (which happens all the time) he asks, "Why would you think I enjoy this at all?" He said he hates masks as much as everybody else.

"None of these decisions is politically popular," Walz said. "I feel like John Lithgow in Footloose — 'can't dance, can't do this, gotta do this' — and I just am that guy all the time."

He knows pandemic fatigue is real, he knows people are tired of being bombarded with the data and the science, and he's convinced they are tired of hearing it from him. So he's trying to bring new faces to his press conferences, like hospital directors, who can talk directly about what they are seeing.

But Walz remains hopeful. He said with vaccine progress putting a real light at the end of the tunnel, and COVID-19 raging out of control in frightening ways, he thinks there is a new receptiveness to masks — or at least he hopes there is.

For his part, Biden has consistently worn a mask and has stuck to a consistent message. He tweeted last week: "Wearing a mask isn't a political statement — it's a patriotic duty."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new presidential administration promises a new approach to masking against the pandemic. President-elect Biden wants a lot more people wearing masks, and he'd rather they not be a political symbol as they have been. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was Memorial Day when then-candidate Joe Biden made his first public appearance since the coronavirus shut everything down. Biden and his team decided he would wear a mask while placing a wreath at a veterans memorial. An aide says it wasn't a difficult decision. A couple of days later, Biden put it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Wearing one of these masks when you're outside is not a partisan issue. It is a matter of protecting other people.

KEITH: That same week, President Trump mocked a reporter for wearing a mask at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I couldn't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The second...

TRUMP: Can you take it off? Because I cannot hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I'll just speak louder, sir.

TRUMP: Oh, OK, because you want to be politically correct. Go ahead.

KEITH: The lines were drawn, and it shows up in polling data. Most Americans say they wear masks in public indoors, but Republicans are less likely. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, says this division is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Luntz says the key to breaking through the resistance is not to preach but to listen and to personalize it.

FRANK LUNTZ: Do it in a way that doesn't look like you're being political. Do it in a way that people will feel like this is being done for them - genuinely for them.

KEITH: Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, announced new COVID restrictions last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG DUCEY: Some straight talk. There are two extreme and distinct camps out there.

KEITH: Here's what he tried.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUCEY: Most of the public isn't part of either camp. And by the way, neither am I. Masks work. Please wear them.

KEITH: In neighboring New Mexico, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, was early to require masks, so she's had plenty of time for creative thinking about getting people to go along with a mandate they don't like.

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: You know, I said masks are not political. If you want to do something political, write it on your mask.

KEITH: You wear your jerseys, she said. Wear masks that represent what you believe in.

GRISHAM: I do think that actually motivates people to wear them because you get to make a statement.

KEITH: Right then, her communications director, Tripp Stelnicki, jumps on the line.

TRIPP STELNICKI: I did see someone in Red River once wearing a mask that said my governor is a dummy. But he was wearing it. He was wearing it. So that's all that mattered.

GRISHAM: Yeah. So I would argue that that makes me pretty smart if that got you to wear a mask.

KEITH: Along the same lines, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, also a Democrat, said this at a recent press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM WALZ: Wear your mask and stay healthy. If for no other reason, that'll keep you healthy to vote against me in two years if that's what it takes. Just keep yourself healthy and keep others healthy.

KEITH: In an interview, Walz explained what he was thinking. He's trying to give people permission to say they disagree with him and still wear a mask.

WALZ: Why would you think I enjoy this at all? I hate it as much as anybody else because none of these decisions is politically popular. I said the other day that I feel like John Lithgow in "Footloose" - can't dance, can't do this, got to do this. And I just am that guy all the time.

KEITH: Walz says with vaccine progress putting a very real light at the end of the tunnel and COVID raging out of control in frightening ways, he thinks there's a new receptiveness to masks. At least he hopes there is.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO DREAMERS' "FOOTLOOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.