The State Department has advised against all international travel because of the coronavirus, but that didn’t stop Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from flying to Afghanistan this week.
Gyms across the nation’s capital are shuttered, but Sen. Rand Paul, an eye doctor, still managed a workout at the Senate on Sunday morning as he awaited the results of a coronavirus test. It came back positive.
The guidance against shaking hands? That hasn’t always applied to President Donald Trump, whose penchant for pressing the flesh continued even after public health officials in his administration were warning that such bodily contact could facilitate the spread of the contagious virus. Practice social distancing? Daily White House briefings involve Trump and other senior officials crowded around a podium.
Even as the country has largely hunkered down, heeding the guidance of health experts and the directives of state leaders, some powerful people in Washington have defied preventative measures aimed at curbing the spread. Their business-as-usual actions are at odds with the restrictions everyday Americans find themselves under — and with the government’s own messaging.
Some human behavior experts say the “do as I say, not as I do”‘ ethos seemingly on display is common among powerful officials, who may be inclined to think rules for the general public don’t apply to them in the same way or who can easily disassociate their own actions from what they say is best for others.
“When we have high power, we think of ourselves as exceptional as if the rules don’t apply to us,” said Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who has researched behavior and decision-making. “We’re much more prone to do what we want because we don’t feel constrained in the way that less powerful people do.”
In Pompeo’s case, the State Department says the unannounced trip — coming amid a near-global travel shutdown — was necessary and urgent because of political turmoil in Afghanistan that U.S. officials fear could threaten a recent U.S.-Taliban peace deal that calls for American troop withdrawals. Pompeo left Kabul on Monday without being able to secure a power-sharing deal.
People traveling with Pompeo had their temperatures taken and were given small plastic bags containing a face mask, hand sanitizer, bleach wipes and mini-disposable thermometers. A State Department medical official told reporters that Pompeo and his staff would not be quarantining themselves because Afghanistan is not considered a high-risk country for the virus and because Pompeo’s movements on the trip were controlled.
But some of the behavior by other officials has drawn rebukes.
Asked in a Science Magazine interview about Trump shaking hands, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he tells White House staff that “we should not be doing that. Not only that — we should be physically separating a bit more on those press conferences.”
Several senators, meanwhile, scolded Paul for refusing to self-quarantine after he’d been tested, with the doctor overseeing the government’s coronavirus response suggesting the Kentucky Republican’s actions fell short of model “personal responsibility.” More than two dozen senators are in their 70s and 80s, putting them at high risk if exposed.
Still, despite risk to senators and the fact that gyms across the country have been closed as a precaution, Paul and other senators were able to continue going to the Senate gym, using a keypad for access.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said in an interview with Newsy that Paul’s actions were “irresponsible” and that senators in general have been acting as if they were somehow immune to getting sick. He cited what he said was a “photo opp” for senators held over the weekend.
“I think that senators must think that they’re invincible,” Brown said.
Paul, a proud civil libertarian, said he had thought it “highly unlikely” he was sick before getting the test results and had no symptoms of the illness. He said he did not have contact with anyone who tested positive for the virus or was sick. He was at the Senate gym Sunday morning, though Paul’s staff says he left the Capitol as soon as he received the results.
Asked about Paul, Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said people can spread the virus while being asymptomatic, so social distancing is imperative. She noted that she herself stayed home over the weekend when she felt ill. She took a coronavirus test that came back negative.
“These are the kinds of things that we have to do for one another. This is the personal responsibility that I’m talking about that we all have to practice,” Birx said.
Trump raised eyebrows among public health specialists when he methodically shook the hands of retail and health industry specialists at a Rose Garden news conference two weeks ago. He acknowledged Monday that shaking hands has been a hard habit for him to break, having become accustomed as president to doing so with “literally thousands of people a week.”
Even now, he stands close to other officials at daily White House briefings, including Vice President Mike Pence. By contrast, Defense Secretary Mark Esper began separating from his deputy this month as a precaution.
Itzhak Yanovitzky, a Rutgers University communications professor, said senior officials or people in positions of power frequently separate their public behavior from their private, especially if they think they have greater control over their circumstances compared to strangers. Doctors, for instance, may not always follow their own recommendations to their patients if they think they have better control over their illnesses.
In times of crisis, most people look to health experts as the ultimate authority, Yanovitzky said in an email. But for the segment of the population already disinclined to take the risk seriously, inconsistencies between what people say and do risk undermining the recommendations and mandates of the public health community, he said.
“The problem,” said Schweitzer, the Wharton professor, “is that the mixed messages sow confusion, and it seems disorganized, undisciplined, chaotic.”