Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Dr. Anthony Fauci’s most dedicated troll in Congress, took his skepticism of COVID-19 experts to the campaign trail on Sunday, telling a Virginia crowd matter-of-factly that cloth masks don’t work and defending President Trump’s repeated statements that the virus will simply go away.
“I’m not telling you not to wear a mask,” Paul said at a rally for Nick Freitas, a Republican candidate for Congress in central Virginia, which was streamed on Freitas’ Facebook page. “The cloth masks… I’m just telling you the truth, they don’t work. Ninety-seven percent of viruses go through a cloth mask.”
Paul did not cite at the time where he got this figure. But his office sent a tweet from Paul last month sharing a 2015 study that found particle penetration of cloth masks was 97 percent. Not noted, however, was that the authors of the study revisited it in light of the COVID-19 outbreak and said the “physical barrier provided by a cloth mask may afford some protection,” and tailored their guidance to health workers, not regular citizens.
After the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, public health researchers have consistently found that cloth masks, while less effective than surgical masks or N95 masks, are a critical way to stop the spread of the coronavirus because they drastically reduce the range of droplets expelled from a person’s mouth and nose. Recent research from the University of Washington, for example, found that if 95 percent of people wear cloth masks within six feet of others, it would reduce COVID-19 spread by 30 percent.
The Kentucky senator also offered a vision of how the country might adapt to the virus: staffing restaurants and cruise ships with people who have already had COVID-19, arguing that their assumed immunity from the virus would make such situations far safer.
“If I owned a restaurant, I’d have a whole wing for senior citizens or for anybody who is worried about getting sick, and I would say, all my servers have already had it,” Paul told the crowd. “If I had a cruise ship... everybody would have had the infection that works on the boat.”
Aside from the other issues presented by this scenario—contracting COVID-19 not from servers but from other guests, for example—the science on immunity from the virus is not yet fully understood. Paul, who contracted COVID-19 himself in March, has insisted that those who had the virus are immune, perhaps permanently. He is frequently seen indoors around the U.S. Capitol complex without a face mask.
“I’ve had it. I can’t get it again,” Paul said on Sunday, to applause. “I can’t give it to you and I can’t get it.”
The research, which is limited so far, suggests a far less ironclad reality. A recent study in the medical journal Immunity found that people who had mild COVID-19 cases produced antibodies that could protect from a second infection for a five- to seven-month period, possibly longer. Similar findings have increased optimism among public health officials, but major questions still remain on the subject.
Freitas, the candidate Paul was stumping for, is running against Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) in one of the most competitive U.S. House races of the 2020 cycle. A Virginia state lawmaker, Freitas shares Paul’s libertarian outlook and is one of the few 2020 candidates that the Kentucky senator is actively supporting. At the beginning of his remarks, Paul joked that Freitas is one of the few candidates he’d drive two hours in the rain to campaign for. A spokesman for Freitas’ campaign did not respond to an inquiry on whether he agrees with Paul’s statements at the rally.
The crowd for Sunday’s outdoor event in this district, which went for Trump in 2016 and was previously represented by tea party darling Dave Brat, gave a warm reception to Paul, who wrapped his typical skepticism of the federal government around the COVID-19 crisis and blended it with a healthy dash of pro-Trump rhetoric.
“The president said the virus would go away, and they mock him and make fun of it,” said Paul, referring to Trump’s repeated assertions that COVID-19 would disappear, which Joe Biden, his rival in the presidential race, has indeed mocked. “The virus will go away,” declared Paul, though he suggested that would happen in the long term—while Trump, early in the pandemic, made clear he expected the virus to disappear before it took root.