- The Washington Times - Friday, October 30, 2020

Russia loomed over the U.S. election four years ago but here’s a 2020 twist no one saw coming: Vladimir Putin and Joseph R. Biden both want everyone in their vast nations to mask up in public.

Mr. Putin issued a mandate requiring masks on public transport and other public spaces last week, as the coronavirus swamps his country and Europe at large.

Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee, is pushing for something similar in the U.S., calling for a “nationwide mandate” that amounts to a face-covering requirement on federal property and interstate transportation and a plea for every governor to issue a mask mandate.

If governors won’t do it, Mr. Biden plans to lean on mayors, hoping to make mask-wearing a social norm from coast to coast.

The push is winning support from public health experts — including Dr. Anthony Fauci — who say people need to buckle down as the coronavirus permeates the country and swamps Europe.

The U.S. is seeing record numbers of daily cases but it’s not just from increased testing — hospital visits are peaking in over a dozen states.

Unlike his Democratic foe, President Trump says he wants Americans to make their own choices as they navigate the pandemic. He’s presiding over campaign crowds with sporadic mask use and ridiculing California for its strict rules.

“You cannot, under any circumstances, take it off. You have to eat through the mask,” Mr. Trump told Arizona supporters at a recent campaign rally.

Health experts say masks are a simple but effective tool in blocking infectious droplets, especially if someone is infected and doesn’t know it as they talk, cough or sneeze in public. Even if a mask-wearer does become infected, some scientists believe a face covering may reduce the amount of virus they’re exposed to, given them a better chance of having a mild case.

Mr. Biden initially pitched a sweeping federal mandate ahead of the Democratic National Convention in August.

But the effort ran into immediate questions — vice-presidential pick Kamala Harris said no one would be punished for violating the mandate, dubbing it a federal “standard,” while Mr. Biden said he believed he had the legal power to enact one but couldn’t guarantee it.

“It isn’t clear that the executive branch has such broad authority,” said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “If you’re on federal property, you can probably do that — if you’re on an airplane, or on Amtrak.”

Thirty-three states, plus D.C., have mask orders in place, according to AARP.

The mandates differ but generally apply to indoor public spaces like stores and restaurants or public transportation and offer exceptions for people disabilities or specific circumstances, like exercising or eating.

There are gaps in mask usage, however, including in states that have seen a spike in cases and deaths in recent weeks.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, has pleaded with residents to mask up but will not mandate it.

Mr. Biden’s authority to twist governors’ arms would only extend so far, according to experts.

For instance, it would be difficult for his administration to threaten state or localities with a loss of funding for refusing to institute a mask mandate, according to Mr. Blackman. A federal appeals court earlier this year ruled against Mr. Trump‘s push to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

Heavy-handed efforts to induce mask-wearing might also backfire, hardening the resistance of people who see government pandemic rules as overreach.

Mr. Trump officially recommends mask-wearing in cases where people cannot socially distance. But he hasn’t promoted their use and questioned whether waiters are spreading germs by fiddling with their masks while serving food.

Mr. Trump appeared shocked to see Fox News personality Laura Ingraham wearing a mask at his Michigan rally on Friday.

“Are you wearing a mask?” the president called out incredulously to Ms. Ingraham, who was standing below the stage in the crowd. “I can’t recognize you. Is that a mask? I’ve never seen her in a mask. Look at you. Whoa! Whoa!”

Mr. Trump told the crowd, “She’s being very politically correct.”

“Oh,” Mr. Trump said, “she’s being very politically correct.”

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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