“Hold on, I’ve got a mask for you right here,” Colbert said on his CBS show, staring defiantly into the camera while appearing to make a crude gesture with his hand, which was wrapped loosely in a surgical mask.
Colbert wasn’t the only person who objected to seeing the lower half of Pence’s face Tuesday. The late-night host was joined by fellow TV comics and medical professionals, all of whom roundly criticized Pence for failing to set the right example amid the pandemic by knowingly disregarding the hospital’s masking policy.
Videos and photos of Pence’s visit to one of the country’s premier hospitals began circulating widely on social media Tuesday afternoon. In one clip from PBS NewsHour, a barefaced Pence could be seen elbow-bumping and chatting with multiple people inside the clinic. Everyone else visible in the video was sporting a mask, adhering to the clinic’s recently instituted requirement that all patients and visitors wear a facial covering while on the premises.
The Mayo Clinic wrote in a now-deleted tweet that Pence and his team were aware of the masking policy ahead of Tuesday’s tour.
Pence later defended his decision to go mask-less, telling reporters he and everyone around him are regularly tested for the virus. Pence, President Trump and other officials have regularly appeared at White House coronavirus briefings often standing close to one another without masks, even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance earlier this month encouraging people to use the face coverings in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
“Since I don’t have the coronavirus, 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,” Pence said Tuesday. (It is unclear how wearing a mask, which usually only covers the lower half of a person’s face, would have obstructed Pence’s vision.)
But Pence’s explanation did little to quell the backlash.
On CNN, Jonathan Reiner, a cardiologist who treated former vice president Richard B. Cheney, ripped Pence’s actions as “so wrong, so tone-deaf.”
“The vice president wouldn’t disrespect a synagogue and not wear a skull cap when he walked into a temple or he wouldn’t refuse to remove his shoes when he walked into a mosque,” said Reiner, a professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “Hospitals are our new holy places and he’s completely disrespecting the sacrifice that the nurses and the docs and the staff in hospitals make by not wearing a mask. What is he saying to them?”
Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, was equally irked.
“It’s a hospital in the middle of a pandemic,” Gupta told anchor Chris Cuomo with a wry chuckle. “That is the time when you wear a mask.”
Gupta also pushed back against Pence’s response, noting that a negative test result doesn’t mean complete certainty that a person isn’t contagious.
“When you get a negative test, that is a point in time,” the doctor said. “If he’s getting tested periodically that’s great, but you don’t really know. You could have another exposure and potentially harbor the virus in your body, have no symptoms.”
Other doctors rushed to condemn Pence’s decision on social media.
“I have already had #COVID19, am documented PCR negative and I have antibodies,” tweeted Dara Kass, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “I still wear a mask around other people. Be like me, not the VP.”
Another doctor described Pence’s behavior as “pompous, arrogant + self-absorbed,” adding, “It’s anti-science.”
The criticism of Pence continued well into Tuesday night as TV comics dissected the controversy for their audiences.
“I guess he was just like, ‘It’s okay everybody, I don’t believe in science,’ ” Trevor Noah quipped on Comedy Central. “Dude, come on, what are you doing? Wear a mask.”
On CBS, Colbert pointed out that not long after Pence was “saying it and spraying it” at the Mayo Clinic, the medical center seemed to publicly call out the vice president in the tweet, soon deleted, which explained that he was well aware of the rules.
“Wow, that must have been harsh for Mike Pence to get roasted by his idol, mayo,” Colbert joked.
Meanwhile, ABC host Jimmy Kimmel suggested an alternative theory for why Pence entered the hospital without a mask.
“You know the only reason he didn’t wear a mask is because Trump won’t wear one, right?” Kimmel said.
Kimmel later added, “I don’t know, maybe Mike Pence wants to catch it already and be put out of his misery.”
But even amid all the outcry, Pence wasn’t without his defenders Tuesday — namely Fox News host Laura Ingraham and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
“The media obsession with Mike Pence wearing a mask is really just ridiculous,” McEnany said Tuesday night in response to Ingraham’s question about “mask-shaming.”
“Instead of focusing on mask palace intrigue, perhaps they can focus on delivering news to the American people,” McEnany said. “I think that’s what the American people deserve.”