WASHINGTON -- The messaging was unmistakable: Surgeon Gen. Jerome Adams, on a network news-talk show Sunday, wore a large white mask that left little showing but his eyes -- which were wide and impassioned as he pleaded with Americans to wear face coverings in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Adams is often photographed wearing a mask. Still, it was unusual, and telling, for him to don one for a remote TV appearance, which slightly muffled his speech. But a day earlier, after months of refusing to wear a mask in public, President Trump backed down and for the first time allowed himself to be photographed by media wearing a face covering. He was visiting Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, at the time.
With new infections spiking from Florida to Oregon, the president's concession could make it easier for White House staff, as well as Republican governors and members of Congress, to appeal to Americans to wear facial coverings.
But resistance to mask-wearing has become entrenched in many parts of the country, often as a means of signaling support for Trump.
Social media posts featuring clashes over masks have become a pandemic staple, usually featuring people who proclaim their right to go bare-faced in supermarket aisles, coffee shops and taco joints, sometimes resulting in shouting matches or scuffles with passers-by or unfortunate employees.
Trump, who rarely acknowledges having second thoughts about a previously held position, denied that his belated support for masks marked a U-turn from his oft-stated opposition to wearing them.
"I think it's a great thing to wear a mask; I've never been against that," he told reporters at the White House after his foray to Walter Reed.
In the early months of the contagion, the White House repeatedly defended Trump's reluctance to be seen publicly wearing a mask, pointing out that both he and those around him are tested frequently and do not need to take the precaution of covering their faces.
Public health experts despaired that the president was undermining a message that mask-wearing reflects social responsibility in an unprecedented national and worldwide crisis, primarily as a means of protecting others rather than oneself.
"I do think it would have been better to have started wearing masks, demonstrating wearing masks at the highest levels of government, a long time ago," Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, said on "Fox News Sunday," when asked about Trump's seeming change of heart.