Why Pence's explanation for not wearing a mask at Mayo is so odd

The vice president has an explanation for why he ignored CDC guidelines and hospital policy at the Mayo clinic. It just doesn't make any sense.
Image: Vice President Mike Pence tours Mayo Clinic facilities supporting coronavirus disease research and treatment in Rochester, Minnesota
Vice President Mike Pence tours Mayo Clinic facilities supporting the coronavirus disease research and treatment in Rochester, Minn., on April 28, 2020.Nicholas Pfosi / Reuters

Vice President Mike Pence occasionally ventures outside the nation's capital for events that become embarrassing. It was around this time three years ago, for example, that Pence visited a NASA facility, approached equipment that was labeled "Do Not Touch," and was photographed with his hand directly on it.

It was funny at the time. The vice president's trip to Minnesota yesterday was far less amusing.

Vice President Mike Pence went on a tour of the Mayo Clinic's coronavirus testing labs Tuesday -- and ignored the prestigious Minnesota hospital's rules that all occupants wear masks. "Mayo Clinic had informed @VP of the masking policy prior to his arrival today," the clinic tweeted while Pence was still inside meeting with doctors and patients. The tweet was later deleted. Asked for comment, the clinic said only that it had "shared the masking policy with the VP's office."

If you've seen any of the coverage of Pence's visit, you've probably experienced the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other feeling. Physicians were wearing masks; patients were wearing masks; Mayo Clinic administrators were wearing masks; and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn was wearing a mask.

This was, of course, how it should be. Guidelines to "stop the spread" of the coronavirus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- guidelines that the vice president encourages Americans to follow -- specifically recommend that people wear masks in public. It's also the policy of the Mayo Clinic itself.

And yet, there was Pence, sans mask.

When this caused a stir, the vice president's office issued a written statement explaining that Pence is tested regularly, which gives him confidence that he doesn't have the coronavirus. The statement added, "I thought it'd be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say thank you."

Part of the problem is that the vice president probably can't say with absolute certainty that he doesn't have the coronavirus. It's possible, for example, for a person to contract the virus after testing negative. It's also possible for a test to produce a false negative. It's why wearing a mask, especially around patients in a medical facility, is the responsible thing to do.

As the head of the official White House Coronavirus Task Force, Pence ought to know that.

The other part of the problem -- and this is important -- is that masks and blindfolds are not the same thing. Pence may have been eager to look health care professionals "in the eye" -- the vice president has long placed great significance in his steely gaze -- but masks don't cover eyes.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) added yesterday, "When you don't wear a mask, especially inside the Mayo Clinic, you are not being brave. You are showing that you think the rules don't apply to you. And you are setting a dangerous example by ignoring experts."

Quite right. So what's the actual reason Pence skipped the required step? It's hard to say with certainty, but watching the vice president yesterday, it was hard not to think of Donald Trump's comments a few weeks ago, when the White House announced new guidelines, encouraging Americans to wear masks in public in order to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The announcement coincided with the president's remarks that he intended to ignore the new guidelines. "So with the masks, it's going to be, really, a voluntary thing," Trump said in early April. "You can do it. You don't have to do it. I'm choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that's okay. It may be good. Probably will. They're making a recommendation. It's only a recommendation."

Asked to explain his position as it relates to his own personal protection, Trump talked a bit about how impressive his desk is, before telling reporters, "Somehow, I don't see it for myself. I just -- I just don't.... I won't be doing it personally. It's a recommendation."

Pence appears to care deeply about following Trump's lead. It stands to reason the vice president doesn't wear masks because the president chooses not to wear masks.