Editorial: Just A Face In The Crowd

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For U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, it had to be a big night: President Donald Trump invited him to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the first big political rally of his reelection campaign to be held after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Mr. Zeldin had the rare thrill of being there in person as the president gave him a shout-out from the stage.

An Associated Press photographer captured an image of Mr. Zeldin in the crowd inside a tightly packed section of the Tulsa arena — without a face mask.

It’s disappointing. Because it feels like a true missed opportunity to make an important statement, in a setting where it might truly have made a difference.

Oklahoma, like so many other states, is riding the upside of the COVID-19 wave, with an increasing number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. There were concerns that it might be a bad time for the Tulsa rally, a large inside public gathering, regardless of the precautions taken. It’s plausible that the concerns, even among Trump’s ardent supporters, at least contributed to the disappointing turnout at the much-hyped event: The official count was well under half of the venue filled, though organizers had planned for a full house and a spillover outdoor gathering of thousands more.

At the rally, the president — as usual, not wearing a mask — continued to downplay the severity of the outbreak in its current state, and even remarked that he had told officials to “slow the testing down, please,” because it was, in his mind, returning positive results that fueled fears that, despite his rhetoric, the pandemic is far from over. The White House maintains it was a comment “made in jest,” but it came on the heels of a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Vice President Mike Pence repeating the notion that “we are winning the fight,” and the “panic is overblown.” The numbers suggest otherwise.

Context matters. In the context of the Tulsa gathering, not wearing a mask was a statement, and it was made by many people not named Trump — photographs of the crowd show most of the attendees without masks. In Oklahoma, where the statistics are worsening, wearing a mask is a sensible choice, backed by health experts. Not wearing a mask? That’s a strong political statement of support for the president’s view of the crisis, numbers be damned.

Mr. Zeldin defends his choice not to be masked when pictured in the crowd of the Tulsa arena. He was socially distanced from rally attendees, he said, throughout his visit to Tulsa. Those around him in the photo were part of a delegation that traveled together from Washington, D.C., and all had been tested and found to be negative for the coronavirus. He also said he wore a mask throughout his movements in the arena and only took it off when he was at his seat, surrounded by his travel companions.

Wearing a mask in the midst of the pandemic is a personal choice, always has been. Mr. Zeldin certainly can decide for himself whether it’s needed in that setting. Most likely, his decision not to wear a mask didn’t put anyone at risk, nor himself.

But imagine if the Republican congressman from the 1st District on Long Island wore a mask in Tulsa. Suffolk County was an early hotbed of COVID-19, and it is steadily emerging from the crisis thanks to the commitment of so many officials (including him) and thousands of ordinary citizens who followed social distancing guidelines, including wearing masks in public — and continue to do so, which has kept the numbers low even as life begins to return to normalcy. It’s a success story, and it’s an example for Oklahoma, and other states, to follow as they stare at the worst of the outbreak that’s still ahead. The simple act of wearing a mask would have spoken volumes.

Instead, there sat Mr. Zeldin, without a mask, in the Tulsa rally for a president who defiantly will not be seen wearing a mask, amid a crowd of supporters who took the cue and would not dream of wearing a mask, even in such a dangerous setting.

It was a stellar opportunity to show courage and leadership in the midst of a public health crisis. Instead, Lee Zeldin was just another face in the crowd.

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