On the evening of Jan. 20, 2021, a video of U.S. President Joe Biden listening to a performance by musician Yo-Yo Ma at the Lincoln Memorial while not wearing a face mask was widely circulated on social media, along with the claim that the newly sworn-in president was acting hypocritically by violating a new executive order on mask use that he had signed just hours earlier.
Charlie Kirk, the founder of the conservative Turning Point USA, for instance, shared the video with the caption: "Does Joe Biden’s new executive order mandating masks on federal property not apply to Joe Biden while he’s on federal property? Because here he is at the Lincoln Memorial with no mask just hours after signing it."
This is a bad-faith argument that appears to be based on a cherry-picked moment and a willful misunderstanding of Biden's new mask policy.
Shortly after Biden was sworn into office, he signed several executive orders, one of which dealt with mask use on federal properties. While Kirk's tweet, as well as articles from Fox News and the New York Post, may lead people to believe that Biden's new policy requires the use of face masks at all times by all people in all situations without exception, that is not what Biden's executive order states.
Biden's executive order says that people in federal buildings must comply with the CDC's public safety guidelines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The executive order reads:
It is the policy of my Administration to halt the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) by relying on the best available data and science-based public health measures. Such measures include wearing masks when around others, physical distancing, and other related precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Put simply, masks and other public health measures reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when communities make widespread use of such measures, and thus save lives.
Accordingly, to protect the Federal workforce and individuals interacting with the Federal workforce, and to ensure the continuity of Government services and activities, on-duty or on-site Federal employees, on-site Federal contractors, and other individuals in Federal buildings and on Federal lands should all wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to other public health measures, as provided in CDC guidelines.
The CDC's mask guidelines encourage mask use in most instances, but the agency also notes a number of exceptions to that rule. For instance, mask use is more important when a person is indoors, as opposed to outdoors. In the video above, Biden is outdoors. The CDC also notes that masks are more important when a person is in a crowded room. In the video above, Biden is largely by himself, standing next to one person who appears to be an appropriate 6 feet away.
The CDC writes:
Masks may not be necessary when you are outside by yourself away from others, or with other people who live in your household. However, some localities may have mask mandates while out in public, please check for the rules in your locality.
It should also be noted that Biden's executive order places the responsibility of enforcing rules related to mask use on the heads of various federal agencies. The executive order gives the heads of these agencies some leeway on how to best implement the CDC's guidelines and to decide if any exceptions need to be made:
The heads of executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall immediately take action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, to require compliance with CDC guidelines with respect to wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and other public health measures by: on-duty or on-site Federal employees; on-site Federal contractors; and all persons in Federal buildings or on Federal lands.
Heads of agencies may make categorical or case-by-case exceptions in implementing subsection (a) of this section to the extent that doing so is necessary or required by law, and consistent with applicable law. If heads of agencies make such exceptions, they shall require appropriate alternative safeguards, such as additional physical distancing measures, additional testing, or reconfiguration of workspace, consistent with applicable law. Heads of agencies shall document all exceptions in writing.
Lincoln Memorial is administered by the National Park Service. As of this writing, the National Park Service has not criticized Biden for violating its guidelines. We've reached out to the National Parks Service, the White House, and the CDC for more information, and will update this article accordingly.
The video of Biden listening to a performance by Ma originated with a C-SPAN broadcast that was shared to Twitter by reporter Timothy Burke. In that posting, Burke noted that Biden wore a mask before the performance began and put his mask back on immediately after. Here's the full video:
While this video truly shows Biden momentarily without a mask on, this was not in violation of his new mask policy. Furthermore, this video shows a single moment from the "Celebrate America" event. During most of the event, especially when indoors, Biden was wearing a mask, as illustrated in the photograph at the top of this article.