Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama is running a new television ad commending people in his state for following the advice of medical professionals and wearing masks, as top Republicans pressure President Donald Trump to encourage Americans to wear them to limit the spread of coronavirus.
The ad is the latest example of how Congress’ response to the coronavirus pandemic has become a political issue. Jones is considered the most vulnerable incumbent Democratic senator in 2020.
“The Covid crisis has shown how our health depends on each other, on our neighbors, our loved ones, our co-workers,” says Jones. “Wearing masks and social distancing is about protecting each other, our parents and grandparents, the friend who has diabetes or a heart condition we didn’t know about, the front-line workers who put themselves at risk, and so our small businesses open safely and get our economy moving.”
“We do this for each other,” he adds at the end, while putting on a mask.
The Jones ad comes in the middle of a debate within the Republican Party over how to encourage Americans to be safe during the pandemic. The Jones campaign has booked the ad to air in the Montgomery media market this week, at a cost of about $226,000, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
The mask has become a symbol of one’s political allegiance during the pandemic, pitting some supporters of Trump against those who take the advice of health care experts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Health Committee, and some top health care officials in the Trump administration have all encouraged wearing a mask as a way to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Alexander urged Trump on Tuesday to “just get rid of this mask politics,” adding that “it hurts the country and it doesn’t help him.” Alexander, who is retiring after this term, said the debate “makes no sense” because Trump supporters would help the President win reelection if they wore masks to contain the disease and reopen the economy sooner.
“If you’re pro-Trump, you don’t wear a mask, and if you’re anti-Trump, you’re more likely to wear a mask,” he said. “But that makes no sense.”
Trump has continued to defy health experts’ recommendations and shown reluctance to wear a mask in public, telling the Wall Street Journal it is “a double-edged sword” that could make people more likely to get infected since wearers fidget with them and could get a false sense of security. The President also suggested that some masks are worn as an expression of opposition to him.
Vice President Mike Pence was asked on Tuesday if the Trump administration is delivering inconsistent public health messaging. “The President has worn a mask in public, as have I, and you’ve heard a strong encouragement about mask wearing,” he responded. “But let me say we believe that Americans should wear a mask whenever state and local authorities indicate that it’s appropriate, or whenever social distancing is not possible. And we’ll continue to convey that message.”
Overall, 65% of adults say they have worn masks “in stores or other businesses all or most of the time in the past month,” according to a recent Pew Research Center study. But only 49% of conservative Republicans said they have worn them “all or most of the time in the past month,” compared with 60% of moderate Republicans and 83% of liberal Democrats.
Alabama Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan told CNN that she wears a mask “whenever possible in public,” but that “this topic will find folks on both sides of the debate.”
“My biggest observation is there seems to be a lot of mask shaming that adds more division,” she wrote in an email. “People are watching the data, updates and the Covid situation. They are making their own decisions. The time spent on the mask wars is probably interesting to many but does it change any minds? There is nothing wrong with reminders on wearing masks, but it’s eventually the individual’s choice.”
Lathan said the Jones ad is a “good mask public service announcement” but that it omits Jones’ voting record, which she said strikes against the will of the majority of Alabamians, including voting to remove the President after his impeachment and against the confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“He can’t mask these facts in the highest-approval-rated Trump state in the nation,” she added.
Jones is running in a state that Trump won in 2016 by nearly 30 points. In 2017, Jones beat Roy Moore, a twice-defrocked state Supreme Court justice accused of sexually assaulting teenagers, by a point and a half. He’ll face a tougher opponent in 2020. On July 14, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who held the Senate seat for 20 years, faces former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who boasts Trump’s endorsement, in the Republicans’ primary runoff election. The Jones, Sessions and Tuberville campaigns did not respond to requests for comment about the new ad.
In the absence of a state mandate and amid a rise in cases, some cities and counties in Alabama have issued stricter guidance. In Jefferson County, the home of Birmingham and the most populous county in the state, a mandatory face-covering order reportedly went into effect on Monday.
CORRECTION: The story has been updated to correct a description of Jones’ Senate voting record.