It was a jarring image: a presidential candidate appearing on-camera with a mask covering his nose and mouth, muffling his words as he strained to speak through a black face covering that looked like something from a dystopian movie.
America was just two months into the coronavirus pandemic — a time when masks were not routine, Zoom gatherings felt novel, stay-at-home orders had begun lifting and Americans were grappling with a new kind of life amid contagion. But Joe Biden had been wearing a mask for weeks when he interacted with others in private, and he now decided it was time to go public.
Appearances such as that one on Memorial Day “did seem a little weird,” recalled Democratic pollster Fred Yang. He likened Biden to the neighbor who does everything by the book: “In the beginning you think, ‘Gee, what a noodge.’ And at the end, everyone’s doing it.”
Now, as the campaigns barrel toward the finish line, masks have become the ultimate symbol of the divide between the candidates, with Biden wearing one seemingly at every turn and President Trump mocking him for it. But although surveys show most Americans side with Biden on the issue, the politics were not always so clear — and Biden’s early embrace of mask-wearing was as much a reflection of personal health concerns as a political calculation, according to people familiar with his decision-making.