BETHESDA, United States (AFP) – US President Donald Trump wore a face mask in public for the first time Saturday, finally yielding to intense pressure to set a public health example as the coronavirus rampages across America.
Trump had on a dark mask featuring the presidential seal as he walked through the corridors of Walter Reed military hospital outside Washington to meet with wounded veterans.
Trump strode past reporters and did not stop to speak to them about what had become a hotly anticipated moment – would he have a change of heart on a practice recommended by the government’s own medical experts, even as he resisted?
“I’ve never been against masks but I do believe they have a time and a place,” Trump said as he left the White House.
News reports this week said aides practically begged the president to relent and wear a mask in public – and let himself be photographed – as coronavirus cases soar in some states and as Trump trails Democrat Joe Biden badly in polls ahead of the November election.
Trump has steadfastly defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic even though the US is the hardest-hit country in the world.
The country has recently seen several days of more than 60,000 new cases, nearly 135,000 people have died and states have been left to figure out on their own how to reopen without a clear and coherent strategy from the White House.
To wear a mask or not has become a sort of political fulcrum for a deeply divided America.
Conservatives who back Trump often refuse to don one on grounds it impinges on their freedom, while progressives tend to back the practice as a show of collective responsibility at a time of a life-or-death crisis.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people wear masks in public when they cannot engage in social distancing.
But Trump – at political rallies, media briefings, and elsewhere – has repeatedly avoided wearing a mask, even after staffers at the White House tested positive for the virus and as more aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, have taken to wearing them.
In May, Trump even made fun of Biden when the latter started wearing a mask in public, sharing a tweet that featured an unflattering photograph of the former Vice President in a black face covering.
Trump has reportedly told aides that wearing a mask would make him look weak and he could not stomach the idea of letting the media photograph him in one.
Even Saturday as he left the White House to head to Walter Reed, Trump made it sound like he would wear a mask only because he would be in a hospital – not that he had come around and embraced the idea of donning one regularly.
“I think when you’re in a hospital, especially in that particular setting, where you’re talking to a lot of soldiers and people that, in some cases, just got off the operating tables, I think it’s a great thing to wear a mask,” Trump told reporters.