Lloyd Austin Wears Face Shield in Philippines, Angering Uninformed Critics

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's sarcastic remarks about Austin's "COVID theatre" lit up the internet.

Published July 30, 2021

 (Chad McNeeley, DOD)
Image courtesy of Chad McNeeley, DOD

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In late July 2021, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to several countries in Southeast Asia. As he touched down in the Philippines, a video was shared to Austin's Twitter account that showed him wearing both a face mask and a face shield as he stepped off the plane. The video racked up more than 2 million views, thanks in part to Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's tweeting out the video, calling Lloyd's wearing of a face shield "embarrassing COVID theatre."

When Rubio claims that this was "theatre," he is suggesting that Austin chose to wear a mask and shield to artificially heighten the perception of the dangers of COVID-19. In other words, Austin was "acting," according to Rubio, to play up the dangers of the disease. It appears, however, that Austin was simply abiding by local protocols.

The Philippines has required the use of both masks and shields in public spaces for months. While there are some exceptions to this rule, as of this writing, the Department of Health in the Philippines still says that masks and face shields are mandatory. Here's one of several graphics on the website promoting the use of both at the same time. The caption "bawal walang mask at face shield" loosely translates to "it is forbidden not to wear a mask and face shield."

The U.S. Embassy in the Philippines also states on its website that "the Philippine government has mandated that everyone must wear full-coverage face shields together with face masks while in public places. Local governments continue to implement additional requirements to slow the virus’ spread."

Furthermore, Voice of America reporter Carla Babb, who traveled with Austin to the Philippines, wrote on Twitter that, "We were told prior to arrival in Manila that the Philippines required everyone getting off @SecDef ‘s plane to wear a mask and face shield. I am traveling with Austin as a member of the press and had to wear both as well. #COVID19 cases are surging here."

When social media users pointed out that Austin was abiding by the country's protocols, not performing COVID theater, Rubio pushed back with a series of photographs of Austin without a face shield on, along with the mocking claim that the "face shield mandate" must have been "lifted shortly after he landed."

These photographs are misleading and do not support the literal claim that the face shield mandate was lifted, nor the sarcastic claim that Austin disregarded Philippine's safety guidelines after he landed in the country. Generally speaking, two of these pictures were not taken in the Philippines and therefore have nothing to do with that country's COVID restrictions. The other two were taken in the Philippines, but the specifics behind each show that Austin was not flouting the country's rules.

We'll go through the four pictures in more detail below.

The first (far left) shows Austin as he met with President Rodrigo Duterte. While Austin is wearing a face shield in the picture shared by Rubio, other photographs from this meeting show Austin in just a mask. It should be noted that Duterte has given mixed messages about face-shield guidelines. In fact, in June, he caused confusion by informally stating that face shields would no longer be required in public (the government later walked back this comment). While we don't know the specific details of this meeting, it seems likely that Duterte, who is not wearing a face shield, asked Austin to remove his as well.

The second picture (center) shows Austin with Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. (The picture appears severely cropped in the above-displayed tweet due to Twitter's formatting. If you click on the picture, you should be able to view it in full). While it's true that Austin is not wearing a face shield in this picture, he was wearing one just seconds before.

Austin and Lorenzana were both wearing their face shields before they met each other for a joint news conference. Once they met, Lorenzana removed his face shield and Austin did the same. You can see this moment at the 36-second mark of the following video. This news report from WION shows other clips from Austin's trip. While Austin is seen wearing a face shield during much of this trip, there are moments (such as when he is speaking during a news conference or talking to a shield-less world leader) that he is not wearing a face shield.

The final two photographs have nothing to do with the Philippines' COVID-19 protocols because neither was taken in the Philippines. Austin traveled to several countries during his trip to Southeast Asia.

The third photograph (top right) was taken in Vietnam. The final photograph (bottom right) was taken in Singapore. Austin posted these pictures to his Twitter page:

While Austin did not wear a face shield while inspecting a line of soldiers in Vietnam (as he was not required to do so), he did wear a face shield while performing the same task in the Philippines. The picture at the top of this article comes from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Rubio claimed that Austin was playing "COVID theatre" by wearing a face shield in the Philippines. However, this country currently requires such shields. If Austin was truly wearing this shield in a disingenuous attempt to play up the pandemic (which, as of this writing, has resulted in more than 4 million deaths), it's curious why he chose to do so only in the one country that requires the shields.   

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

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