Ted Cruz: Why do I need to wear a mask around the Capitol now that I'm vaccinated?

Al Drago/Pool via AP

Liberals are savaging him for this today on social media, out of all proportion to the gravity of the offense. I understand the temptation to pile on Cruz when he engages in mindless populist virtue-signaling, which is roughly 97 percent of his political repertoire and is doubtless what’s driving his recent decision to go maskless. But the Party Of Science™ isn’t demonstrating a fine appreciation for actual science when it freaks out over an immunized person ditching his mask at this stage of the pandemic.

In fact, one could argue that Cruz is doing some good by treating vaccination as the path out of social restriction. People on both sides have criticized the public-health bureaucracy for “underselling” the vaccine by urging those who’ve been immunized to stay away from bars and restaurants, keep wearing masks, and generally go on behaving as if they hadn’t gotten their shots to begin with. If we want people who are undecided about getting vaccinated to say yes, many of us have argued, then we need to reward them for doing so by encouraging a return to normalcy.

Well, that’s what Cruz is doing, whether he means to or not.

Sen. Ted Cruz is no longer wearing a face mask as he walks the halls of the Capitol complex or goes to the Senate floor for debates and votes.

“At this point I’ve been vaccinated. Everybody working in the Senate has been vaccinated,” the Texas Republican told CNN, even though many staff members and reporters in the Capitol have not been vaccinated…

“CDC has said in small groups, particularly with people who were vaccinated don’t need to wear masks,” he responded as he climbed into a small Capitol elevator with two aides, both of whom were wearing masks…

When the reporter noted to Cruz that he and other members of the press corps had not been vaccinated, Cruz responded: “At this point, virtually everyone here has been vaccinated. And everyone has the opportunity.”

It’s not true that everyone has the opportunity. Virginia, where many congressional staff and reporters live, isn’t opening up vaccine eligibility to all adults until Sunday. Some reporters who cover Congress have been made specially eligible to be immunized via Capitol authorities but “those shots are only now getting into the arms of the journalists and therefore they are not fully vaccinated,” CNN notes. And there are reasons besides the risk of infection personally posed by Cruz why one might want him to continue wearing a mask. If you’re worried about unvaccinated people mistakenly taking a cue from Cruz that because it’s safe for him to take off his mask it’s safe for them to do so too, you might want him to keep wearing his to set an example for a few more months until everyone who wants a vaccine has had a chance to get one.

But as I say, that risks “underselling” the vaccine. If you want vaccinated people to continue to behave as though they’re unvaccinated, you’re inadvertently signaling that the vaccines protect people less comprehensively than they actually do. I’m not sure we’d have more takers for the shot if Congress went on wearing masks indefinitely than if they all took off their masks and collectively declared that vaccination has made it *almost* perfectly safe for them to do so. Red states are already notorious for their comparatively high numbers of vaccine skeptics. Having Ted Cruz, of all people, advertise that he got his shots and now feels safe around others without a mask might point a few of those skeptics in the right direction.

Yesterday we learned from the CDC that, out of 66 million fully vaccinated adults, just 5,800 suffered “breakthrough” infections — a rate of .008 percent. That’s the risk lefties are worried about in pummeling Cruz for supposedly putting people around him in danger by going maskless. Even if there are 10 times as many breakthrough infections in reality than the CDC has managed to detect, that’s still 99.9 percent of vaccinated people who aren’t infectious. Rochelle Walensky’s claim that vaccinated people don’t carry the virus was technically untrue but basically correct.

So what’s this uproar over Cruz really about? Lefties who follow the science saw the CDC numbers yesterday. They know how low the risk is from him. I think it’s just pandemic culture-war tribalism, as Zeynep Tufekci recently explained:

I continue to believe that masks, including high-filtration masks, are an important tool, especially for the unvaccinated who must work or be indoors with other people. But it’s pretty clear that they have also become a talisman of sorts, essentially signaling belonging in a tribe, rather than a public health tool that’s quite useful under certain circumstances. It’s weird to see the mask debate come full circle. Now I get lectured for not talking about masks, even if the article is about vaccination, and people openly declare that they will continue to double-mask for a year even after being fully vaccinated–and for saying that on social media, they receive many likes and retweets (I’m not linking to examples because I’m not trying to focus on individuals). Meanwhile, those who deny the importance of the pandemic will often obsessively focus on masks, as if they are the greatest threat to liberty and individual expression rather than, yep, a public health tool that’s quite useful under certain circumstances. The talisman works both ways as a tribal signifier.

It’s working both ways here too. It’s no coincidence that the first two Senate Republicans to ditch their masks were two of the most ostentatious populists in the chamber, Cruz and Rand Paul. This isn’t purely about science for them, it’s about rebelling against a pandemic restriction that’s been universally adopted by the left and repeatedly condoned by the public-health experts whom righty populists disdain. But it’s not purely about science for liberals either. If it were, there’d be more sensitivity to the near-zero risk Cruz poses without his mask. What this is about is treating masks as a talisman, to borrow Tufekci’s term, a way to demonstrate how much one cares. Mask-wearing is a minor imposition, right? And we all want to set a good example for the proles, no? Well, then, you wear your mask even if your risk of infection is on the order of .01 percent. And if you don’t, then you just don’t care about human life.

I’ll leave you with Chris Cuomo last night, underselling the vaccine again by being unable to resist the temptation to scold Cruz.