Dr. Deborah Birx is the latest public official to make headlines for ignoring her own coronavirus safety advice, but she isn’t the first.
The Associated Press reported Monday that Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus response, traveled out of state with extended family members, despite encouraging Americans to keep celebrations within their “immediate household.”
For those of us struggling to stay motivated to continue social distancing and wearing masks, cases where public officials ignore the very rules they are imposing on others can feel like more than enough reason to give up, or at least cry, “hypocrisy!”
But Dana Radcliffe, who teaches ethics at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business and Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, reminds us that American history is filled with instances of politicians preaching ideals in conflict with their behavior — from Thomas Jefferson who declared “all men are created equal” while owning slaves, to Lyndon Johnson who pledged not to escalate military involvement in Vietnam even though he planned to do so.
In the field of behavioral ethics, this phenomenon is called “ethical fading,” said Radcliffe. The term describes the way people deceive themselves to hide the wrongness of their choices.
“I can well imagine a public official telling himself, after urging others not to gather with family for the holidays, that, being very knowledgeable of the issue, he can adequately protect himself and his loved ones from the risks he asks other citizens to avoid,” said Radcliffe.
Still, officials should be held to a higher standard, he said, especially when public health is on the line.
“People who have considerable power or ability to influence others have a greater obligation to make sure that their actions match their words — because their words and actions can affect the behavior and welfare of others,” said Radcliffe. He added that appointed and elected officials who have openly disregarded scientific findings and recommended guidelines based on their personal and political beliefs could be doing even more harm and getting in the way of resolving the problem.
Here are seven examples, among many, of public officials who drew scrutiny for flouting their own coronavirus recommendations.
1. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
Pelosi, a Democrat, came under fire after she visited a San Francisco hair salon in August. At the time, public health restrictions forbade hair salons from operating. According to CNN, Pelosi’s staff said the speaker made an appointment with a private stylist who misinformed her they could serve one customer inside the salon at a time. It turned out that wasn’t true. The owner of the salon, Erica Kious said it was “a slap in the face” that Pelosi went in to get her hair done while regular people weren’t able to do so, and while hairstylists and salon owners couldn’t work, Fox News reported.
2. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, senior U.S. senator from California
The longtime Democrat had made statements to Congress saying that masks are important and should be mandatory because they reduce the transmission of COVID-19. After calling on the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Transit Administration to make masks mandatory for airlines and public transit, Feinstein was spotted in September at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, walking through a private terminal without a face covering. Later, a clip that showed the 87-year-old senator outside a Senate hearing without a mask, talking closely with two men, went viral on social media, according to ABC.
3. Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago
Lightfoot defended her decision to join a crowd of people celebrating Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s election victory, despite announcing a stay-at-home advisory due to surging coronavirus cases days after the celebration, the Chicago Tribune reported. Unmasked, she spoke to the tightly packed crowd with a bullhorn and posted the video on social media.
Lightfoot told MSNBC that everyone in the crowd was wearing masks and she thought the gathering was justified, saying, “Yes, there are times when we actually do need to have ... relief and come together, and I felt like that was one of those times. That crowd was gathered whether I was there or not.”
4. Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C.
Like Lightfoot, Bowser also figured that Biden’s presumptive win was good cause to circumvent coronavirus guidelines she put in place. Bowser and members of her staff traveled from D.C. to Delaware for a victory celebration at the beginning of November, according to the Washington Post.
At the time, a mayoral order on interstate travel required anyone who visited certain states including Delaware to quarantine for two weeks upon returning home, except those whose travel was for essential purposes. The mayor said that the trip “absolutely” qualified as “essential travel” because she was conducting government business.
However, a new rule that went into effect after her trip eliminated the two-week quarantine requirement and instead ordered people to be tested for coronavirus before returning to the District from high-risk states.
5. Gavin Newsom, governor of California
Newsom, a Democrat, was criticized for attending a Napa Valley dinner party with guests from multiple different households in November, after encouraging Californians not to gather with family over Thanksgiving, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The dinner was reportedly a birthday party for a political adviser at a Michelin-starred French restaurant.
Unlike some other politicians caught in the act, the governor formally apologized for disregarding his own guidelines. That same day, he reversed plans for reopening many parts of the state, according to The Los Angeles Times. He said, “I need to preach and practice, not just preach and not practice.”
6. Michael Hancock, mayor of Denver, Colorado
Hancock also had to apologize to constituents for his negligence in November. The mayor posted a message on social media and also sent a message to city staff encouraging everyone to avoid traveling for the holidays. Then, he proceeded to fly to Mississippi to spend Thanksgiving with his wife and daughter, the Denver Post reported.
“I recognize that my decision has disappointed many who believe it would have been better to spend Thanksgiving alone,” he said. “I made my decision as a husband and father, and for those who are angry and disappointed, I humbly ask you to forgive decisions that are borne of my heart and not my head.”
7. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus response
According to The Associated Press, Birx traveled with three generations of her family from two households to a vacation property on Fenwick Island in Delaware the day after Thanksgiving. The group included Birx, her husband, a daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, even though Birx had previously urged Americans to “be vigilant” and limit celebrations to “your immediate household.”
Birx defended the trip by saying the purpose was to prepare the property for a potential sale and not to celebrate the holiday, Fox News reported.
“As some members of my immediate family could be at risk for COVID-19, I am extremely vigilant in taking all precautions to protect them. I self-isolate, I wear a mask, and I get tested when I interact with them. My family and I follow and practice CDC guidelines, and I encourage all Americans, especially those in situations similar to mine, to do the same,” Birx told Fox News.