How Joe Biden Might Try To Make Masks A Less Partisan Issue As Joe Biden prepares to take office, he's talking to governors about trying to implement a national mask mandate. But to succeed, Biden is likely going to need to find a way to depoliticize masks.
NPR logo

To Combat The Pandemic, Biden Will Aim To Depoliticize Mask-Wearing

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/938285580/938763600" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
To Combat The Pandemic, Biden Will Aim To Depoliticize Mask-Wearing

To Combat The Pandemic, Biden Will Aim To Depoliticize Mask-Wearing

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/938285580/938763600" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new presidential administration promises a new approach to masking against the pandemic. President-elect Biden wants a lot more people wearing masks, and he'd rather they not be a political symbol as they have been. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was Memorial Day when then-candidate Joe Biden made his first public appearance since the coronavirus shut everything down. Biden and his team decided he would wear a mask while placing a wreath at a veterans memorial. An aide says it wasn't a difficult decision. A couple of days later, Biden put it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Wearing one of these masks when you're outside is not a partisan issue. It is a matter of protecting other people.

KEITH: That same week, President Trump mocked a reporter for wearing a mask at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I couldn't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The second...

TRUMP: Can you take it off? Because I cannot hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I'll just speak louder, sir.

TRUMP: Oh, OK, because you want to be politically correct. Go ahead.

KEITH: The lines were drawn, and it shows up in polling data. Most Americans say they wear masks in public indoors, but Republicans are less likely. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, says this division is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Luntz says the key to breaking through the resistance is not to preach but to listen and to personalize it.

FRANK LUNTZ: Do it in a way that doesn't look like you're being political. Do it in a way that people will feel like this is being done for them - genuinely for them.

KEITH: Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, announced new COVID restrictions last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG DUCEY: Some straight talk. There are two extreme and distinct camps out there.

KEITH: Here's what he tried.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUCEY: Most of the public isn't part of either camp. And by the way, neither am I. Masks work. Please wear them.

KEITH: In neighboring New Mexico, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, was early to require masks, so she's had plenty of time for creative thinking about getting people to go along with a mandate they don't like.

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: You know, I said masks are not political. If you want to do something political, write it on your mask.

KEITH: You wear your jerseys, she said. Wear masks that represent what you believe in.

GRISHAM: I do think that actually motivates people to wear them because you get to make a statement.

KEITH: Right then, her communications director, Tripp Stelnicki, jumps on the line.

TRIPP STELNICKI: I did see someone in Red River once wearing a mask that said my governor is a dummy. But he was wearing it. He was wearing it. So that's all that mattered.

GRISHAM: Yeah. So I would argue that that makes me pretty smart if that got you to wear a mask.

KEITH: Along the same lines, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, also a Democrat, said this at a recent press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM WALZ: Wear your mask and stay healthy. If for no other reason, that'll keep you healthy to vote against me in two years if that's what it takes. Just keep yourself healthy and keep others healthy.

KEITH: In an interview, Walz explained what he was thinking. He's trying to give people permission to say they disagree with him and still wear a mask.

WALZ: Why would you think I enjoy this at all? I hate it as much as anybody else because none of these decisions is politically popular. I said the other day that I feel like John Lithgow in "Footloose" - can't dance, can't do this, got to do this. And I just am that guy all the time.

KEITH: Walz says with vaccine progress putting a very real light at the end of the tunnel and COVID raging out of control in frightening ways, he thinks there's a new receptiveness to masks. At least he hopes there is.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO DREAMERS' "FOOTLOOSE")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.