WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is emerging as the GOP's mask spokesman, proselytizing about the importance of wearing a face covering during the pandemic.
President Donald Trump may resist appearing masked in public. But in stops across his home state of Kentucky, the highest-ranking Republican in Congress is not only showing up with his face covered. He is holding up his blue mask for the cameras. Slipping the straps behind his ears. And repeating over and over that it's the single-most important thing Americans can do to stem the surge of COVID-19 cases.
“Wear your mask,” McConnell said Wednesday in Winchester, in the central part of the state.
It's a smart political move for Republicans to peel away from a president who has turned mask-wearing from a simple public health guideline into another weapon in the culture wars, an us-against-them litmus test of support.
As the country struggles to bring the virus outbreak under control, Republicans approaching their own reelection prospects alongside Trump in November, including McConnell, know they need to be seen as correct on health issues, showing voters they are leading a way out of the crisis.
Promoting mask-wearing also helps the GOP's efforts to prop up the economy on its terms, reinforcing the new-normal of safety protocols — masks, social distancing — as an alternative to another round of stay-home orders, shutdowns and costly federal aid.
"Our biggest threat now to the economy is the fact that COVID is surging again in certain parts of our country," McConnell said.
“We can’t shut the economy down again — we don’t have enough borrowing capacity to continue to prop up the economy much longer — which is why the mask is so important.”
Congress is out for a two-week recess, but lawmakers are set to consider a new virus relief package when the House and Senate resume on July 20.
McConnell is eyeing a $1 trillion package, going nowhere near the $3 trillion proposal Democrats say is needed to meet the health care challenges and economic fallout.
Mask-wearing is key to McConnell’s priority in the bill, a five-year liability shield to protect schools, hospitals and businesses from lawsuits by those claiming to have suffered because of the reopenings.
Along with the liability shield, McConnell wants a new round of direct payments, a follow-up to the $1,200 the government sent in the spring. But Republicans oppose continuing a $600 weekly unemployment boost and have offered no plans to stem the looming eviction crisis.
Democrats say the extra jobless aid is a lifeline for Americans struggling to make ends meet. They also are offering $100 billion in rental assistance and $75 billion for homeowners paying mortgages. A 120-day federal eviction moratorium on certain rentals expires at the end of July, and the Democrats’ bill would extend it through March 2021.
McConnell has been promoting masks since he reconvened the Senate in early May. Before the senators returned, McConnell signaled the importance of setting an example by wearing masks, tapping his chief of staff to convey to other senators' offices that he would be wearing one, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
McConnell reinforced this message last week by saying there should be “no stigma” to wearing a mask.
Most senators are, in fact, wearing masks during sessions at the Capitol, with the notable exception of the other Kentuckian, Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has said he believes he is now immune from the virus after having tested positive in the spring.
Kentucky reported its second-highest day of new cases this week, reflecting rising caseloads across the red, rural states that avoided the initial onslaught of COVID outbreaks in big cities along the coasts.
Asked during his stop Wednesday about making masks mandatory, McConnell wouldn't go that far, saying it's up to the governor to decide.
But he said, while wearing a mask, “it's the right thing to do.”
“It’s time for us to take responsibility for our own health and for others,” McConnell said.
“The responsible thing to do is to put your mask on and practice social distancing and help us get through this.”
Associated Press writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.