Before we go any further, let me begin by saying I believe Dr. Anthony Fauci is an exceptional doctor and public-health expert who is doing the best he can in extremely challenging circumstances. I think most of his judgments during this pandemic have been either correct or a reasonable assessment based upon what was known at the time. (Although it’s easy to wonder if this pandemic would have progressed differently if Fauci and other government health experts and officials had not initially recommended against wearing masks back in early March.)
But lately, Fauci’s made a couple of unforced errors that put those who are inclined to defend him in awkward and uncomfortable positions. In declining importance, they are . . .
(1) New York ‘Did It Correctly.’: In a July 17 interview with PBS, Fauci said, “When you do it properly, you bring down those cases. We have done it. We have done it in New York. New York got hit worse than any place in the world. And they did it correctly by doing the things that you’re talking about.” Yes, he’s speaking off the cuff, and he probably didn’t mean to imply a blanket endorsement of everything governor Andrew Cuomo and mayor Bill de Blasio did.
But Fauci is a smart man, and surely he recognizes that a lot of people want to boil the pandemic to a simple tale of smart, good blue states and dumb, bad red states. He knows Cuomo is taking an utterly unhinged victory lap, despite numerous well-documented mistakes and bad decisions. He knows that the governor and mayor desperately want people to forget about those bad choices and look at the current conditions of the state and city as an amazing success story. Fauci understandably wants to avoid getting sucked into the morass of modern partisan politics, but at some point, avoiding direct criticism of elected officials starts to turn into a whitewashing of the record.
Whether or not Fauci intended to offer a blanket endorsement of New York’s response to the virus, that is how his comments were interpreted: “Fauci holds up New York as model for fighting coronavirus — ‘They did it correctly’,” etc.
(2): The Photo Shoot: Earlier this month, Fauci sat for a photo shoot for In Style magazine by his pool at his home. The doctor is 79 years old, has enjoyed an illustrious career, has advised every president since Ronald Reagan, and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008. He doesn’t do what he does for fame and fortune. But posing poolside in sunglasses in a celebrity magazine just feels incongruous, and a little tone-deaf when so many people are struggling economically.
(3): The Baseball Game: Let’s get all the bad-opening-pitch jokes out of the way: “Even Fauci’s pitches remain six feet away from everyone else.” “The Orioles signed Fauci to improve their bullpen.” “The CDC recommends wearing a mask so that no one can see you’re the one who threw that awful opening pitch.” “Dr: Fauci: His manners are mild, but his pitches are wild.”
Assume, in that controversial photo, that Fauci only took off his mask briefly to sip some water. He said he tested negative the day before, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have caught the virus since that previous test was conducted.
Fauci isn’t setting the quarantine policies being enforced by cities and states; he can only advise other people in and out of government. But fairly or not, he is the face of America’s quarantine policies. These restrictions are unprecedented and have been in place, to varying degrees, since mid-March. These restrictions don’t always make sense; the District of Columbia currently requires citizens to wear masks outdoors but still allows indoor dining.
Perhaps as part of his effort to remain above the fray of politics, Fauci has rarely, if ever, criticized any quarantine restriction as excessive or unwarranted. He undoubtedly has a lot on his plate, but his lack of criticism of steps such as governor Gretchen Whitmer’s ban on seeds, the arrest of the paddleboarder in Malibu, Philadelphia police dragging a man off a bus for not wearing a mask, and other ill-considered government actions means that some people will see Fauci as a de facto supporter of those actions.
When the man associated with quarantine restrictions is sitting in a baseball stadium, next to two friends watching a game, when everyone else in America is legally barred from doing the same thing . . . he’s going to get some grief. The sight illustrates the reality that America is operating under one set of relaxed rules for the powerful and well-connected, and another set of stringent and strictly enforced rules for everyone else.
None of this means that Fauci is a bad guy, or that he’s wrong about everything, or wrong about most things. He doesn’t deserve threats. The pandemic isn’t his fault, and he’s doing the best he can to keep everyone alive and healthy. But if the good doctor is getting more flak and criticism now than he did back in March and April, it is partially because he is perceived as the preeminent advocate for a patchwork of arbitrary and confusing restrictions on the daily life of Americans — and he would be wise to avoid situations where he appears to be exempt from those restrictions.