WASHINGTON — As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage large swaths of the U.S., leading Republicans and even some right-wing television personalities have now come out in favor of wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus. The move signals what could be a broader shift in what has become a partisan issue, much to the dismay of public health officials.

“We must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday. 

McConnell explained that wearing a face mask is less an act of self-preservation than one of altruism, since the primary function of a face mask, respirator or cloth covering is to keep the wearer from spreading his or her own viral particles to others. “Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter,” McConnell said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and President Trump in Washington on May 19. (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also came out in favor of face coverings. “They should wear a mask,” he said, though most Republicans in his chamber have pointedly refused to do so, in contravention of a guidance from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That guidance, in turn, was based on the advice of the attending physician of the U.S. Capitol.

At least some of these messages appear to be intended to get the attention of President Trump, who has turned the notion of wearing a mask into yet another of his cultural confrontations. Before touring an Arizona face mask factory in early May, the president mused that wearing a face covering was “politically correct.” It is not clear what he meant. He did not end up wearing a mask at the mask-making plant.

But even some of Trump’s most committed fellow culture warriors have broken ranks with the president. On Monday night, Fox News host Sean Hannity, who serves as a kind of informal chief of staff to Trump and often capably articulates the grievances of the Trumpian base, came out in favor of masks.

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“I went to my grocery store every week. Guess what? They wore masks. Nobody at my grocery store, thank God, got coronavirus,” Hannity said. “I think they work.” Studies of how viral particles travel through the air, and how different fabrics can stop those particles from traveling, confirm that assertion.

“Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy also came out in favor of masks on Tuesday. “I think that if the president wore one, it would just set a good example,” he said. “He’d be a good role model.”

The new attention on masks comes ahead of the Independence Day weekend, when people are likely to gather in large groups across the nation for celebrations. That could only exacerbate the rate of transmission. In some states, including California, infection spikes appear to have begun during the long Memorial Day weekend in late May.

In recent days, the virus has shifted from the Northeast, where it took root in March and April, to states like Florida, Arizona and Texas, where governors close to President Trump bucked public health advice and lifted lockdown measures in early May. Critics have said they did so recklessly, pointing to the thousands of new infections those states are now registering daily.

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— Jared Moskowitz (@JaredEMoskowitz) June 30, 2020

Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s director of emergency preparedness, issued seemingly unambiguous advice in a widely shared Tweet on Tuesday morning that simply had the word “masks,” in all caps, repeated more than 40 times.

At the same time, it’s not clear that message will have any impact on Gov. Ron DeSantis, an acolyte of Trump who has followed the president’s lead. DeSantis has resisted a statewide mask order, even as other Republican governors are abandoning similar skepticism about protective coverings.

DeSantis is one of a shrinking number of holdouts, however.

“Arm yourself with a mask,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said on Monday. And when Vice President Mike Pence visited Texas on Sunday for a religious service, he and Gov. Greg Abbott were pictured wearing face masks for at least part of their time together.

Vice President Mike Pence and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in Dallas on Sunday. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The mask controversy has inevitably found its way to Capitol Hill, where supporters of the president, particularly in the more freewheeling House of Representatives, have steadfastly refused to wear face coverings. That has set up a confrontation with Democratic leadership, not to mention with senior Republicans such as McCarthy.

On Monday, a member of the Democratic leadership in the House, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., issued a blunt warning to his Republican colleagues, informing them that they would not be permitted to attend in-person hearings unless they donned protective face coverings.

“Masks save lives,” Clyburn wrote in his letter, which was addressed to Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who sits on the coronavirus subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee (Clyburn is the subcommittee’s chair). The letter went on to say that legislators “who do not wish to wear a mask are welcome to participate remotely” but will not be allowed inside the congressional hearing room. 

Clyburn is the Democrats’ “whip” in the House, meaning that he is charged with the crucial task of keeping the party in line ahead of significant votes (Scalise has the same position in the GOP). The coronavirus subcommittee was created by Pelosi to monitor the federal response to the pandemic.

Speaking to Yahoo News several hours after that letter was issued, the senior Democrat said that he was disappointed in Republicans’ refusal to recognize basic scientific tenets. “To me, it shows disrespect and ill manners,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn told Yahoo News that the subcommittee will next convene on Thursday. Legislators who decline to wear a mask, he warned, should probably check their internet connections. “The only people that will be allowed to participate in person will be the people wearing a mask,” Clyburn said. “So if you aren’t going to wear a mask, then I will strongly advise you to stay in your office.”

Participating in a hearing from a home or congressional office may earn legislators a valuable mention from Rate My Room, the Twitter account that offers sometimes harsh and frequently humorous judgments of home office environments captured by computer cameras on virtual calls. 

House Majority Whip James Clyburn on Friday in Washington. (Cheriss May/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At a hearing Friday, Clyburn wore a red-and-black face mask supporting statehood for Washington, D.C., as did Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who like Maloney represents a part of New York City, wore a patterned face mask. Other Democrats wore plain light blue masks or white N95 respirators. 

Republicans on the subcommittee wore no face coverings.

House Republicans’ resistance to masks has led to frustration in hearing rooms where, even without the usual presence of journalists, congressional aides and members of the public, social distancing may be difficult to accomplish. 

Clyburn confronted a GOP coronavirus subcommittee member, Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., during the Friday hearing, which was supposed to focus on a Government Accountability Office report on shortfalls in the Trump administration’s coronavirus relief efforts. 

Green used some of his time to denounce the mask guidance that had been prescribed by the congressional physician, as well as by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A medical doctor by training, Green said that his mask intransigence was based on scientific studies.

“I keep hearing about these studies,” Clyburn said. “He must be getting his information from the White House.” 

Green’s congressional office did not respond to requests for comment from Yahoo News. Scalise’s office would not comment on the matter either. The subcommittee also includes Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress. Speaking on Fox News in mid-May, Jordan said that the subcommittee was “designed to go after the president.”

Clyburn’s office said that as of Tuesday morning, there had still been no reply to his letter.

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