PHOENIX, United States - Will he finally wear one? President Donald Trump's refusal to use a mask during the coronavirus crisis came under the spotlight Tuesday when he visited a mask-making factory for his first big trip outside the White House in 2 months.
As he left Washington for the Honeywell plant in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump suggested he might don the face covering. But only, he added grudgingly, if it's a "mask environment."
As the tour of the factory got under way, Trump still showed no sign of actually putting one on.
The Arizona outing is part of Trump's new push to encourage a reopening of the economy, which has been devastated by the social distancing and quarantine measures against COVID-19.
With only 6 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.
"We can't keep our country closed for the next 5 years," Trump answered when asked why he would scrap the task force.
But with the US coronavirus death toll now around 70,000 and no sign of an easy end to the pandemic, 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 right-wing base, has so far 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 comes 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.
The White House says that because top officials and their guests are frequently tested for the coronavirus they don't need to wear masks.
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.
© Agence France-Presse