Maskless and Inaccurate

The Supreme Court offers a window into partisan Covid fallacies.

When the Supreme Court justices emerged from the red drapes at the front of the courtroom last Friday and took their seats — to hear arguments about President Biden’s vaccine mandate — all but one of the justices there were wearing masks. The exception was Neil Gorsuch.

That Gorsuch would resist mask wearing is no surprise. He is a conservative judge with a libertarian streak who has spent his life around Republican politics. In conservative circles, masks have become a symbol of big-government subjugation.

But his decision not to wear one — while the other Republican appointees on the court all were — still felt surprising. The justices usually make an effort to treat one another respectfully. They disagree on the law, sometimes harshly, while maintaining productive and even warm relationships, like the famous friendship between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“When you’re charged with working together for most of the remainder of your life, you have to create a relationship,” Sonia Sotomayor said a few years ago, describing her welcoming of Brett Kavanaugh. “This is our work family.”

Gorsuch had to know that his masklessness could make other justices uncomfortable, including the 83-year-old Stephen Breyer and the 67-year-old Sotomayor, who has diabetes, a Covid risk factor. Sotomayor sits next to Gorsuch on the bench and, notably, chose not to attend Friday’s argument in person. She participated remotely, from her chambers.

When Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post asked a Supreme Court spokesperson whether Sotomayor had done so because Gorsuch was maskless, Marcus got no response.

One of the few public comments from somebody close to Gorsuch came from Mike Davis, a conservative activist and former Gorsuch clerk. On Twitter, Davis defended his former boss by writing, “We know cloth masks don’t [work].” It was a statement that managed to be both exaggerated and beside the point.

Masks, especially medical masks like KN95 and N95 masks,reduce the spread of Covid, studies show. In response to that evidence, the Supreme Court tells lawyers and reporters in the courtroom to wear medical masks.

The effect of masks may not be as large as their advocates sometimes claim, and masks can impede communication. So I recognize that well-meaning people can disagree about when they should be worn. Still, Gorsuch’s lack of a mask inside the courtroom seemed needlessly risky and disdainful of his colleagues.

“Wearing a mask is the decent thing to do,” Marcus wrote in her Washington Post column, “especially when you are around vulnerable individuals.” This week, Gorsuch again appeared without a mask at the court.

His decision seems emblematic of a country where partisan loyalty can trump Covid reality. It also seems emblematic of a court on which the justices are increasingly willing to behave as partisan actors rather than impartial judges.

And if you’re a liberal reader who’s tempted to believe that those descriptions apply only to Republicans — or a conservative reader who’s frustrated that I have focused on Gorsuch — I hope you will read the rest of today’s newsletter.


A sketch from this week shows Gorsuch, with no mask, next to Sotomayor’s empty chair.Credit…Art Lien

During the first hour of last Friday’s two-hour argument, Sotomayor listed the evidence of Covid’s continuing threat, to illustrate the benefits of a vaccine mandate. (Yesterday, the court ruled in the case, blocking Biden’s vaccine mandate for large employers, while allowing a narrower one for health care providers. Gorsuch opposed both mandates, while Sotomayor favored both.)

In making the case for mandates last week, Sotomayor first noted that Covid cases were surging and hospitals were near capacity. She then turned her attention to children: “We have over 100,000 children, which we’ve never had before, in serious condition and many on ventilators.”

That last sentence is simply untrue.

PolitiFact called it “way off.” Khaya Himmelman of The Dispatch described it as false and misleading. Daniel Dale of CNN wrote that Sotomayor had made “a significant false claim.” Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s fact checker, called it “wildly incorrect.”

Fewer than 5,000 U.S. children were in the hospital with Covid last week, and many fewer were in “serious condition” or on ventilators. Some of the hospitalized children probably had incidental cases of the virus, meaning they had been hospitalized for other reasons and tested positive while there.

Covid, as regular Morning readers have heard before, is overwhelmingly mild in children, even those who are unvaccinated. The risks are not zero, and they have risen during the current wave of infections, especially for children with major underlying health problems. But the risks remain extremely low.

Consider these numbers: Over the past week, about 870 children were admitted to hospitals with Covid, according to the C.D.C. By comparison, more than 5,000 children visit emergency rooms each week for sports injuries. More than 1,000 are hospitalized for bronchiolitis during a typical January week.

Similarly, the risk of Covid hospitalization for children — even in recent weeks — has been much lower than the risk from the respiratory virus known as R.S.V., as the epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina has shown.

Or consider this: Vaccinated elderly people are at much more risk of severe Covid illness than unvaccinated children.

Sotomayor’s statement may not have been central to the case. But it was not a random error, either. Many other Americans on the left half of the political spectrum have also been exaggerating Covid’s risks to children. As the authors of a Gallup poll last year wrote, “Republicans consistently underestimate risks, while Democrats consistently overestimate them.”

I understand that these exaggerations often stem from an admirable desire to protect children from harm. But the result has been the opposite: The pandemic’s disruptions have led to lost learning, social isolation and widespread mental-health problems for children. Many American children are in crisis — as a result of pandemic restrictions rather than the virus itself.

Last week’s Supreme Court session was striking because it highlighted both halves of the country’s partisan-based self-deceptions. Many conservatives are refusing to wear masks — or, even worse, refusing to be vaccinated — out of a misplaced belief that Covid is harmless. Many liberals are sensationalizing Covid’s risks out of a misplaced belief that it presents a bigger threat to most children and vaccinated adults than continued isolation and disruption do.

Partisanship, as some political scientists like to say, is a helluva drug.



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The Oscars haven’t had a host since Jimmy Kimmel in 2018. That’s changing this year, organizers announced this week, though they haven’t confirmed who will be stepping into the role.

Hosting the Academy Awards is a tough gig: It’s tricky to achieve the right balance of seriousness and humor in an hourslong broadcast. There have been great hosts, like Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, and strange ones, like an animated Donald Duck in 1958.

But many have struggled with the job, including seasoned comedians like David Letterman (“the gold standard of Oscar bombing,” The Atlantic wrote), and Hollywood stars like James Franco and Anne Hathaway (a disastrous attempt to attract younger viewers). In 2019, the show went hostless after the comedian Kevin Hart dropped out amid backlash over his past homophobic tweets.

The ideal host is a star with mass appeal who can help boost the show’s ratings, which reached an all-time low in 2021. Organizers are apparently considering Tom Holland, who starred in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” The Hollywood Reporter writes. Award nominations will be out on Feb. 8, and the ceremony will air on March 27. — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer


Credit…Johnny Miller for The New York Times

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Maren Morris is a “soulful, R&B-obsessed hook machine and a storyteller in a Southern tradition,” Joe Coscarelli writes.

Test your knowledge of this week’s headlines with our news quiz.

Stephen Colbert discussed Oath Keepers.


The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was fidgety. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: The “E” of E.T. (five letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. There’s no newsletter on Monday because of Martin Luther King’s Birthday. See you Tuesday. — David


Here’s today’s front page.

The Daily” is about Sidney Poitier. “Popcast” is about pandemic jazz.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at

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