Mike Pence unmasked: Now Trump’s mob disgraces the Mayo Clinic

Pence's refusal to wear a mask at the Mayo Clinic fits a larger pattern — and was aimed at an audience of one

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published April 29, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Vice President Mike Pence visits the molecular testing lab at Mayo Clinic Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Rochester, Minn., where he toured the facilities supporting COVID-19 research and treatment. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Vice President Mike Pence visits the molecular testing lab at Mayo Clinic Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Rochester, Minn., where he toured the facilities supporting COVID-19 research and treatment. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Shortly before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was diagnosed with COVID-19, he insisted that people would be "pleased to know" that a global pandemic would not stop him from greeting hospital patients with a handshake. Clearly chastened by the disease that landed him in the intensive care unit, Johnson admitted upon discharge from the hospital that, contrary to former Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher's pithy pitch for her individualist worldview, "there really is such a thing as society."

That fell short of an outright denunciation of modern-day conservative ideology, but Johnson's small show of contrition is a far cry from the supercilious attitude displayed by our current leaders in the U.S. Instead, the cavalcade of ineptitude out of the Trump White House marches on, leaving storied American institutions crumbling in its wake. 

On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, wearing no mask inside the hospital where staff were taking care of people infected by the coronavirus. Pence was the only person who failed to wear a mask in the hospital where patients with COVID-19 were undergoing treatment. "All the other participants did, including Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn, top Mayo officials, Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn," the Associated Press noted. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that "Pence ignored the clinic's request that all visitors don face masks to prevent transmission, including Gov. Tim Walz and others on the tour."

CNN reported that Pence did, however, make a feeble attempt at social distancing with an awkward elbow bump: 

Pence did avoid shaking hands; he elbow-bumped instead with doctors and officials.

But he was mask-less as he thanked workers, conferred with hospital administrators and spoke with a Mayo Clinic employee who was donating plasma after being diagnosed with Covid-19 at the end of March.

To be clear, the CDC recommends that people wearing face coverings when in public to help prevent virus spread from asymptomatic carriers. Any one of us, after all, might have the virus without knowing it. The Mayo Clinic clearly states on its website that, as of April 13, all patients and visitors are required to wear masks — except for the vice president, apparently. Pence argued that he was following CDC guidelines, noting that masks are helpful for preventing those who have the virus from spreading it: "And since I don't have the coronavirus, I thought it'd be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say thank you." 

Leaving aside the fact that Pence thinks wearing a mask to cover his mouth would somehow obscure his vision, his excuse is absurd. How does Pence know he hasn't contracted the coronavirus? Because, he explained, "as vice president of the United States I'm tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus." So we are to believe that the vice president, his staff and everyone else in the White House undergoes what is reported to be an uncomfortable, invasive nasal test every single day — while millions in this country, including medical professionals and other frontline workers, are denied access to those tests — and that's supposed to be a good thing? Even if that does sound like a reasonable response, testing does not provide immunity. A lack of symptoms and negative tests can't guarantee one is not a carrier. And unless Pence was tested as he walked into the Mayo Clinic, and didn't come in contact with anyone or anything after that, he's not in the clear. This guy is in charge of our national coronavirus response so it's little wonder it's been a complete catastrophe. 

To be sure, Pence was deliberate in his disobedience on Tuesday. He put patients and essential employees at risk for political reasons. This is the same person, let's recall, who attended an NFL game just so he could put on a show of walking out when a player took a knee during the national anthem. That piece of theater cost the taxpayers more than $250,000. Once again, Pence was using his office to virtue-signal, the sin conservatives often derisively project onto "social justice warriors." Except that in Pence's case, flouting the federal government's own safety protocols in front of the entire nation conveys a visible demonstration of faith to Donald Trump's core voters. Wearing a mask and taking prudent social distancing measures, on the other hand, might symbolize a concession to the scientific community and be seen to undermine his patron's narrative of a Democratic "hoax."  

This administration never had any intention to lead by example. Earlier this month, President Trump explained that he would not wear a mask because he didn't find it attractive. Trump even mocked a man for wearing a mask in the White House on Tuesday as Pence toured the Mayo Clinic without the crucial personal protective equipment. Pence going out of the way to reinforce bad cultural habits, while still galling, is par for the course. The behavior of the Mayo Clinic, however, was particularly dismaying. 

America's most famous medical facility failed to protect its workers and patients from Mike Pence. In response to questions about why Pence wasn't wearing a mask, the hospital and research center tweeted out that he had been told ahead of time about their policy — before quickly deleting the tweet.

As if that wasn't servile enough, the hospital then tweeted its appreciation to Pence.

Given the Trump administration's well-documented history of petty politics during this pandemic, it is not hard to understand why the Mayo Clinic capitulated to political pressure. The center receives hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds and has been forced to furlough tens of thousands of employees due to the temporary cessation of elective procedures, leaving it even more reliant on federal funding. But in a choice between immediately protecting patients and indulging a powerful person's whims of ego — even when those might be harmful to patients — it shouldn't be a hard decision for a hospital to make. 

Sometimes taking the unpopular high ground has more public impact than acquiescence, but you wouldn't know it from the highly trusted experts who in recent days have chosen to toe Trump's line rather than tell the truth. First Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, walked back his statement earlier this month that a quicker federal coronavirus response "could have saved lives." Then Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, blamed the media for covering Trump's toxic suggestion that the coronavirus might be treated with an injection of disinfectant. Pence's behavior, and now the Mayo Clinic's, fits a larger pattern. 

On the same day that Pence visited the Mayo Clinic, the number of Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus topped 1 million. His latest stunt is simply more fodder for the constant churn of distraction coming from this White House. That it comes at the expense of yet another treasured American institution is a reminder: No one can escape Donald Trump's mob tactics. 

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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