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Stacey Abrams wades into school mask debate after maskless photo with children

The photo touched a nerve, Republicans say, because it shows the out-of-touch piety that they say leads liberals to set rules they don't always follow.
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WASHINGTON — In normal times, a politician could hardly do something less controversial than pose for a photo with kids. But these are not normal times

Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat making her second run for governor, faced intense blowback Monday after sharing — and then quickly deleting — a photo of her smiling unmasked face surrounded by masked elementary school children.

Abrams visited a Decatur elementary school to promote reading and Black History Month. But not since George W. Bush continued reading "The Pet Goat" to Florida students on Sept. 11, 2001, has such a benign event turned into such a political blunder.

Abrams, who supports school mask mandates, was immediately accused of hypocritically violating the school's mask policy and pilloried by Republican politicians and conservative media outlets.

She later apologized for removing her mask, saying in a CNN interview Tuesday night: “Protocols matter, and protecting our kids is the most important thing. And anything that can be perceived as undermining that is a mistake, and I apologize.”

Democrats say the controversy is much ado about nothing, noting that Abrams wore a mask to the school and removed it only for the photo and a speech.

But the photo touched a nerve, Republicans say, because it displays the out-of-touch piety that they say leads liberals to impose onerous societal norms without feeling obligated to always follow them themselves.

“This is a horrible issue for Democrats, because they have attached wearing a mask to morality. You’re a bad person if you don’t wear a mask,” said Brian Robinson, a Georgia-based Republican communications consultant who was the top spokesperson for GOP former Gov. Nathan Deal.

“This is a horrible issue for Democrats because they have attached wearing a mask to morality. You’re a bad person if you don’t wear a mask.”

BRIAN ROBINSON,  a Georgia-based Republican communications consultant

The campaign of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who beat Abrams in 2018, said that while Abrams wants statewide school mask mandates, "it looks like they wouldn’t apply when she’s attending a photo op."

David Perdue, the Republican former senator who is running against Kemp in the GOP primary with the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, went even further, releasing a short ad knocking both Abrams and Kemp.

“Where is Stacey’s mask? We all know Stacey Abrams’ hypocrisy knows no bounds. Liberals’ thirst for power during this pandemic has caused enormous damage to our kids, while the elite like Stacey continue living their lives,” Perdue, who has an estimated net worth of $25 million, said in a statement.

Almost two years into the pandemic, Abrams is hardly the only politician who cannot resist a maskless photo-op and has struggled with the politics of mask optics.

Virginia's new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, was heckled at a grocery store Thursday for going maskless, which is allowed in the state. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a conservative firebrand, has taken pride in racking up fines for violating the House’s mask policy.

But the stakes are higher for Democrats, because they are the ones who tend to support mask rules in the first place.

Last week, Magic Johnson accidentally landed several California politicians in hot water after he posted photos of himself with naked-faced Democrats at an NFL game.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he held his breath during the photo, so “there’s a zero percent chance of infection,” while Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom — who faced a recall attempt last year after he was photographed dining maskless at a fancy restaurant — told reporters he removed his mask for only "a brief second."

Robinson, the Georgia Republican operative, said Abrams could have used the controversy to acknowledge the frustration with Covid rules as a growing chorus of experts question whether it is time to begin relaxing them. But instead, he said, her campaign "pulled out a machine gun."

Abrams’ campaign manager in a statement Sunday called the attacks “shameful,” “silly,” “pathetic” and “pitiful and predictable” and began her comment by noting that the photo was taken during a Black History Month event.

Robinson said: “Even a character like Stacey Abrams cannot stand up to that narrative. It just goes to show how entrenched this mindset is in the Democratic base. The left loves feeling morally superior to non-mask wearers. It’s a treasure to them. They don’t want to give it up.”

Polls have found a narrow majority of parents support school mask mandates, and strident opposition to them is mainly confined to the right.

But surveys also find that fatigue with Covid restrictions is mounting, and some progressive countries, like Denmark, and blue states, like New Jersey, Delaware and Massachusetts, are beginning to lift restrictions — although they say it is safe to do so only because they also have high vaccination rates.

"I think we're seeing right now a lot of Democratic officeholders catching up very quickly to where the public is and this kind of this new reality that people are willing to accept," said Patrick Murray, the director of the nonpartisan Monmouth University poll. "It’s so hard to keep up your guard all the time. And I think if the Stacey Abrams camp was a little bit more honest about that, I think there’s a lot of people out there who could identify with that."

The World Health Organization does not recommend masks for schoolchildren under 5, while the European Center for Disease Control sets the threshold at 12 and suggests that only teachers and staff members wear masks in elementary schools.

Conservatives, meanwhile, want not just to remove statewide school mask mandates, but also to implement a new mandate that would prohibit school districts from choosing to set their own. Florida and Virginia's anti-mask mandates, however, have faced legal challenges.

Even a century ago, during the Spanish flu of 1918, politicians fought over masks along familiar lines.

San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to implement a mask mandate when the mayor said “conscience, patriotism and self-protection demand immediate and rigid compliance" with masking. Opponents formed the “Anti-Mask League,” and protesters said the rule was a “symbol of government overreach.”

Then the pro-mask mayor was photographed without a mask at a packed boxing match — along with several San Francisco supervisors, a congressman, a Navy rear admiral and the city’s top health officer (who said his mask may have slipped while he was smoking a cigar).

The mayor and other officials were flooded with letters demanding an end to the mask mandate, and he rescinded the ordinance. And when the virus made an even stronger comeback a few months later, there was no political support to reinstate it.