By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
President Trump’s resolve may be cracking — at least when it comes to face masks.
At Tuesday’s 5 p.m. daily presser, Trump said, “I have no problems with the masks. If you’re close together, I would put on the mask.” In response to a question about whether he’d experienced a sudden a change of heart on both masks and social distancing. “I’m getting used to the mask ...I will wear it where appropriate. I’ve always agreed with that. I’ve never fought either one.”
A day earlier, the president tweeted /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +3.23% a photo of himself wearing a mask with a presidential seal: “Many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance.” CNN /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T +0.09% reported that the president’s falling poll numbers likely played a role in his latest decisions to wear a mask and resume his daily 5 p.m. update on the coronavirus pandemic.
On April 3, the Trump administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed their policies on face masks and said all Americans — not, as they previously said, just medical workers — should wear cloth face coverings. As of Wednesday, COVID-19 had claimed at least 140,909 lives in the U.S. and infected more than 3.9 million people.
Unlike New York Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s mandate to wear masks in stores, however, the federal government’s recommendations are voluntary. What’s more, Trump at the time signaled his staunch resistance to wearing a mask. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” he said. “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it.”
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for three decades and one of the leading experts on pandemics in the U.S. for four decades, did not attend Tuesday’s White House daily briefing, and prevoiusly said he has not officially briefed the president since June 2. He has advocated the use of face masks since April along with the CDC and WHO.
But the public appear to have responded favorably to Fauci’s message. Most voters said they approved of the doctor, although the majority of Republicans said so by a whisker, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll of 1,337 registered voters from June 17 to June 22. Overall, 67% of voters gave Fauci the thumbs up, including 81% of Democrat and 51% of Republicans.
MarketWatch photo illustration/Getty Images
Trump has stopped short of a federal mandate. During an interview on Fox News, journalist Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would introduce a federal mandate to wear face masks in public places where social distancing is not possible. “No, I want people to have a certain freedom,” Trump replied. “I don’t agree with the statement that if everyone wears a mask everything disappears.”
Asked if he took responsibility for not having a federal policy on coronavirus during the interview, Trump replied, “Look, I take responsibility always for everything because it’s ultimately my job too. I have to get everybody in line. Some governors have done well, some governors have done poorly. We have more testing by fair than any country in the world.”
As of Wednesday, COVID-19 had infected nearly 15 million people globally. It had killed more than 616,990 people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering. New York, once the epicenter of the virus in the U.S., has still had the most deaths of any state (32,520), followed by New Jersey (15,737) and Massachusetts (8,450).
On Feb 29, the surgeon general tweeted his opposition to the public wearing masks. “Seriously people: STOP BUYING MASKS!” he wrote. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #coronavirus, but if health-care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” He reversed course in April.
The public was confused. N95 masks appear to be effective for health-care workers. One study says N95 medical-grade masks do help filter viruses that are larger than 0.1 micrometers. (One micrometer, um, is one millionth of a meter.) The coronavirus is 0.125 um. The masks have “efficacy at filtering smaller particles and are designed to fit tightly to the face,” the study said.
The markets appear torn between optimism on the momentum behind positive vaccine research results and the impact of new infection surges, particularly in California, Arizona, Florida and Texas. The Dow Jones Industrial Index /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA +1.06% and S&P 500 /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +1.49% closed higher Tuesday as investors looked toward the prospect of further fiscal stimulus. The Nasdaq Composite /zigman2/quotes/210598365/realtime COMP +2.32% ended lower.