The week the White House was masked

Behind the scenes: Following a memo last week requiring anyone entering the West Wing to cover their faces, staffers headed en masse to the medical office to pick up masks.
Image: White House staff and guests, wearing face masks, wait for a news conference with President Donald Trump about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, May 11, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
White House staff and guests, wearing masks, wait for a news conference with President Donald Trump about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday, May 11, 2020.Doug Mills / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

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By Shannon Pettypiece

WASHINGTON — It was a jarring sight in the Rose Garden this past Monday as one top administration official after another — senior adviser Jared Kushner, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany — all walked to their seats wearing crisp medical masks.

Just that morning I had watched a string of senior aides arrive at the West Wing without any type of face covering, even after two staffers were diagnosed with the coronavirus days earlier. I had been surprised — the White House is a cramped place to work. Despite the expansive feeling on shows like "The West Wing" and "Veep," there are narrow hallways and stairwells and desks tightly packed together. It isn’t conducive to maintaining six feet of distance from others.

But after the White House Management Office sent a memo Monday afternoon requiring that everyone entering and moving about the West Wing cover their faces, staffers headed en masse to the medical office to pick one up, a White House aide told me.

Even Vice President Mike Pence is now donning a mask around the White House campus. A striking photograph by New York Times photographer Doug Mills showed Pence wearing a mask as his motorcade pulled up to the White House on Wednesday.

But by the end of the week, masks around the White House had become commonplace. By then, I found it more unusual to see someone without one — like White House spokesman Hogan Gidley, who was without a mask outside the West Wing on Friday while speaking within six feet of Dr. Deborah Birx, whose face was covered. (Birx was one of the few people I spotted Monday wearing a mask before the requirement was issued.)

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said she was now wearing a mask around President Donald Trump even though she gets tested daily for the coronavirus.

Vice President Mike Pence, wearing a face mask in the back of his vehicle, arrives at the White House on May 13, 2020.Doug Mills / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

“I myself am not prepared for an acting president or President Pelosi, so I'll wear a hazmat suit — you know red and ruffled and belted, but a hazmat suit — with the president and vice president if I need to avoid that unfortunate occurrence,” Conway told reporters Friday. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is third in the line of succession to the presidency.

While ruffled hazmat suits haven’t taken off yet, decorative masks have. Ivanka Trump, who said she wears a mask now around her father, wore a covering with an American flag pin tacked on, color-coordinated with her outfit, at an event Friday aimed at helping food banks. Chief of staff Mark Meadows wore a mask on Air Force One that appeared to have the presidential seal on it.

In the tight quarters where the press works, many reporters, photographers and cameramen had been wearing masks for weeks, though the practice wasn’t universal. During briefings, reporters would remove their masks because they were spread six feet apart.

White House advisor Jared Kushner, center, and others wear face masks while attending a press briefing about coronavirus testing in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 11, 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

But once it was reported that the president’s personal valet had gotten sick, reporters began wearing masks in press conferences and driveway stakeouts with administration officials. Now the only time my mask comes off is for television appearances on the White House North Lawn, where I’m outside, not in a public space, and well over six feet away from the camera operator.

Of course, one person is exempt from that requirement: the president, who has yet to be seen by reporters wearing a mask. McEnany said it is Trump’s “personal choice” not to wear one. At a Rose Garden press conference Friday, Trump said he told officials at the event that wearing a face covering was optional. Dr. Anthony Fauci and Birx chose to wear one while Azar and Defense Secretary Mark Esper did not.

"We've all been tested, and we're quite a distance away and we're outdoors," Trump said. "So I told them, I gave them the option, they could wear it or not. So you can blame it on me."