Washington, unmasked

·Senior White House Correspondent
·3 min read

WASHINGTON — On Friday morning, first lady Jill Biden walked into the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington. There, in the museum’s soaring lobby, she did something momentous: She took off her mask.

“I guess I can take off my mask while I’m speaking,” Biden said. She was there in advance of the museum’s reopening on Saturday. As she toured the facility, however, she put her mask back on, per Smithsonian Institution reopening guidance.

One day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that vaccinated Americans could take off their face masks both indoors and out, Washington was discovering exactly what that meant. With its complex, overlapping jurisdiction — the District of Columbia, you may have heard, is not a state — it meant, in reality, that people (especially people in power) could do pretty much what they wanted and get away with it.

First lady Jill Biden speaks to gathered employees and media during a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture with Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian, center, and National Museum of African American History and Culture director Kevin Young, left, Friday, May 14., 2021, in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
First lady Jill Biden speaks at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Friday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Groups of tourists wandered maskless past the U.S. Capitol. Joggers skirted them on the sidewalk, and if any curses were uttered about slow-walking out-of-towners, evidence of such imprecations was concealed behind gaiters and masks.

Last spring the game was shame, with reporters pointing out when politicians refused to wear masks. In the Trump administration, which made masks into a culture war battleground, that was often the case.

Now the shame is being directed toward those who insist on keeping their masks on, despite having been vaccinated. Even President Biden faced criticism for doing so after the CDC revised its guidance on outdoor masking late last month.

On Friday, though, Biden was spotted outside the West Wing, taking photographs with a staffer who was departing for the private sector. The president was unmasked.

“Are you enjoying your first day without masks?” a reporter asked.

The president answered with an unambiguous “Yes.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden smile and walk off after speaking about updated guidance on mask mandates, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden after speaking about updated guidance on mask mandates on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The pandemic has presented plenty of opportunities for both virtue and vice signaling, especially when it comes to masks. The issue will likely persist, even with the new guidance. Millions of people, after all, remain unvaccinated. And many local governments, like the District of Columbia’s, still have mask mandates in place.

Unmasking will be especially welcome in the vaunted halls of Congress, where politicians, lobbyists and journalists have for months been tormented by the knowledge that an important person may be passing them in one of Capitol Hill’s narrow corridors, concealed by a face mask and thus impervious to appeals and entreaties.

On Friday, though, those halls were practically deserted, with only a few staffers — most of them unmasked — shuffling around, waiting for the weekend to begin.

“Quiet around here,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who was unmasked, joked to a masked operator of the Capitol subway system. The charming subway cars can be cramped as legislators hurry back and forth between their offices to vote. But there were no votes on Friday, and so Brady had the car all to himself.

(L-R) White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield wait for President Joe Biden to deliver remarks on the COVID-19 response and vaccination program in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 13, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
From left: White House chief of staff Ron Klain, press secretary Jen Psaki and communications director Kate Bedingfield on Thursday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Senate barbershop was quiet too, though fully in operation. “I’m excited,” said a hairdresser named Kim, who was vaccinated and wearing a mask as she gave this reporter an expert, much-needed haircut. Like many other Americans, she was glad that months of lockdown and isolation were coming to an end.

“People need people,” Kim said. On that, if little else, the right and left may actually agree.


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