While the president and vice president forgo masks at rallies, the White House is quietly encouraging governors to implement mask mandates and, for some, enforce them with fines.
In reports issued to governors on Sept. 20, the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended statewide mask mandates in Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma. The weekly memos, some of which have been made public by the Center for Public Integrity, advocate mask usage for other states and have even encouraged doling out fines in Alaska, Idaho and, recently, Montana.
Masks, a political flashpoint since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, are considered by public health officials to be a top safeguard against spreading the COVID-19 virus as the country awaits a vaccine. But the president's own actions on masks have wavered: He has called them "patriotic" but often doesn't wear one himself and has contradicted the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director. During the presidential debate Tuesday, the president said masks were "OK" and then mocked Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's mask-wearing habits. In the audience, some Trump family members and staffers were not wearing masks, despite the rules set by the Cleveland Clinic, which hosted the debate.
The mixed messages and ensuing confusion leave governors, and often state and local health officials, holding the bag of political consequences.
"At some point, we have to turn the corner on this ridiculous separation of what we're being told is best practice and being guided by science and data, and what the actual practices are by the people who issue them," said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
So far, 16 states have yet to enact mask mandates for the general public — all of them are run by Republican governors. Three out of 4 Americans support enacting state laws to require mask-wearing in public at all times, according to an August NPR/Ipsos poll.
To be sure, messaging and the science on masks have evolved: U.S. public health officials did not recommend mask-wearing until April. And the White House argues the president has been clear.
"He recommends wearing a mask when you cannot socially distance," White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern told KHN. "He has worn masks on numerous occasions himself when appropriate and regularly encourages others to do so, as well, when social distancing is not possible."
The pandemic task force sends weekly memos to states to share data and recommendations with leaders to help them make decisions, Morgenstern added. "They're free to share that information as they see fit."
Courtney Parella, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said that the staffers check the temperature of every attendee before admission to rallies, provide masks and encourage attendees to wear them, and offer hand sanitizer.
On Sept. 14, Pence stood before a crowd of hundreds in Belgrade, Montana, to stump for the state's Republicans, including Sen. Steve Daines, gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and congressional candidate Matt Rosendale. Photos show that most who attended went without masks, including the vice president, despite a mask order in effect for the surrounding county.
Montana calls on everyone to wear masks at outdoor gatherings of 50 or more people in counties with at least four active cases when attendees don't stay 6 feet apart.
Photos show people sitting and standing close together at the event in southwestern Montana. Pence signed hats as people gathered shoulder to shoulder by the rails of a crowd divider.
Six days later, the White House coronavirus reports recommended Montana officials issue fines for those who ignore mask mandates in places the disease is spreading fast.
"What would be helpful from the White House is consistency in their recommendations and their actions," said Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department. "It's one thing to make a recommendation to state and local health officials to fine people. It's made more difficult to do that when we have the vice president coming here to a rally where no one, very few people, were wearing masks."
During a press call last week, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said he didn't plan to follow the White House advice to punish those without masks. The Democrat, who is running for Senate, said it's better to encourage people to use masks than rely on fines.
But Bullock said the point of the White House's request was clear. "Even the federal government says we need to be taking wearing masks seriously," he said. "It's not just governors saying that we should do this and it's not just health experts saying we should be wearing masks."
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is among the Republican governors who have resisted a statewide masking order, despite the White House's recommendation.
"You don't need government to tell you to wear a dang mask," Parson said in July at a Missouri Cattlemen's Association steak fry, according to the Springfield News-Leader. "If you want to wear a dang mask, wear a mask."
Parson and his wife, Teresa, tested positive for COVID-19 last Wednesday.
Spokesperson Kelli Jones said last Thursday that the governor does not plan to enact a mask order, based on an assessment of current COVID data. She added state officials consider the White House reports "really more of an FYI" than a mandate.
"It's kind of a bizarre document, truthfully," she said. "We read them and look at them — and make our own policy."
The reports, which are sent to the governors, also leave local and state public health officials in the dark, said Freeman, of NACCHO.
"If the White House were truly serious about making these — what sounds like solid, scientific-backed, data-backed recommendations — if they were truly serious about it, tell the world, share them, be transparent," she said.
Instead, former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said, the White House has fueled the partisan breakdown on masks.
"One of the many failures of this administration is the politicization of masks, and that has really cost lives," Frieden said. "There is no reason masks should be partisan."
Meanwhile back in Montana, Gallatin County appears to be heading toward its third surge in cases since the pandemic began.
"I don't really have a lot of time to worry about inconsistency of messaging from the White House," health officer Kelley said.
The county now has outbreaks in nursing homes and several confirmed cases in schools, he said, and the county's positivity rate is heading toward 10%.
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