PHOENIX (AFP) - US President Donald Trump visited a mask-making factory on Tuesday (May 5) in his first major trip since the coronavirus lockdown began - but again refused to wear a face covering himself.
Trump flew all the way to Phoenix, Arizona, to celebrate the workers at a Honeywell plant churning out masks for healthcare workers during the pandemic that has killed about 70,000 Americans so far.
His audience sat masked in compliance with US government recommendations and their own company rule, which was clearly displayed on a sign in the facility reading: "Please wear your mask at all times".
Trump had teased as he left Washington that he might finally cover his face, as long as it was what he called a "mask environment".
Instead, in a short speech given against a backdrop of boxes filled with new masks, Trump kept to his new focus of playing down the dangers from Covid-19 and building up his push to reopen the economy.
"We can't keep our country closed for the next five years," he said earlier at the factory.
The US economy has been devastated by the social distancing and quarantine measures against Covid-19.
And with only six months until election day, the Republican is scrambling to change the national mood and to sell voters his pitch of a fast economic comeback.
Bolstering that shift of direction, the White House said that Trump's emergency coordination group for the pandemic would be disbanding, probably by early June.
But with the US coronavirus death toll still rising daily, critics accuse him of turning his back on the crisis for personal political gain.
Masks, like the N-95 versions produced by Honeywell, have become a symbol of those clashing visions.
Polls show that Democrats support face covering as a sign of shared responsibility, while some Republicans see mask-wearing orders as a big government threat to individual liberty.
White House medical experts and even First Lady Melania Trump promote masks as a crucial tool in fighting the viral spread.
But the president, tuned closely into his loyal right-wing base, has used his massive visibility to downplay the need.
"I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don't know," he said in April, apparently suggesting a mask would be unpresidential. "Somehow, I don't see it for myself."
Trump's Arizona mask moment came after his vice-president, Mike Pence, caused an uproar a week ago when he was photographed mask-less during a visit to the famous Mayo Clinic hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, which requires visitors to cover up.
Pence - unusually for a member of the Trump administration - publicly admitted he'd been wrong.
"I didn't think it was necessary, but I should have worn a mask," he said on Sunday.
On a subsequent trip, Pence did wear a mask.
The White House says that because top officials and their guests are frequently tested for the coronavirus they generally don't need to follow the guidance.
However, the controversy runs deeper, reflecting a dispute over facts that has turned swaths of the United States into camps where the left and right see different basic realities.
Trump-supported groups protesting the coronavirus lockdown - sometimes ostentatiously brandishing firearms and parading in paramilitary garb - liken going mask-free to an act of political independence.
In Stillwater, Oklahoma, and other cities, local leaders abandoned orders to wear masks after threats of violence.
A common slogan at the protests now is that the entire pandemic is a "hoax." Trump, who is behind in many polls against his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, is walking a tightrope.
A big resurgence of the virus might doom his chances of a second term. On the other hand, he believes that a quick economic recovery would clinch the deal.
For that, he needs people to stop fearing the pandemic.
"We can't stay closed as a country, we're not going to have a country left," he said Sunday.