Dr. Anthony Fauci, America's top infectious disease expert, fired back at those who criticized him for pulling his face mask down while seated next to his wife and a friend at Tuesday's season-opening Major League Baseball game. He called the critiques "mischievous," and said he pulled the mask down because he was drinking water.
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the game, then sat in the nearly empty stands to watch the Washington Nationals host the New York Yankees.
An image taken by The Associated Press showed Fauci seated directly between his wife and another man with no spacing between them. Fauci had his phone in his hand. A bottle of water could be seen between his legs. He was looking at the other man and smiling.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended people wear face masks, even those made from cloth, at public indoor spaces or outdoors when social distancing cannot be maintained. Experts say face covering is intended to prevent people who may have COVID-19 -- including those who may not show symptoms -- from spreading the disease to others.
Critics went after Fauci over the image.
"Good thing Fauci wears his mask and stays 6 feet apart," MMA fighter Jake Shields tweeted.
Columnist and talk show host John Ziegler called Fauci a fraud, tweeting a second photo showing Fauci looking out at the field, also with his mask down.
Others came to Fauci's defense, noting that -- at the time -- it was unclear who was with him.
When asked about it Friday on Fox News, Fauci told John Roberts he had tested negative for COVID-19 the day before the game and that the other man in the photo is a close friend.
"I think this is sort of mischievous with this thing going around. I had my mask around my chin, I had taken it down. I was totally dehydrated and I was drinking water trying to rehydrate myself," Fauci said.
“I wear a mask all the time when I'm outside -- to pull it down, to take some sips of water and put it back up again, I guess if people want to make something about that, they can. But to me, I think that’s just mischievous," Fauci added.
More than half of U.S. states have issued statewide mask mandates. Several retailers are doing the same. Airlines have also required passengers to wear masks on board, but do allow them to remove the mask to eat and drink.
Fauci has become the government's most visible face in the battle against the virus, and polls show him as its most trusted authority as well. But as the nation has become divided along political and ideological lines on how to deal with the coronavirus, he's become the target of intense criticism.
He said in a podcast released Thursday that he, his wife and his daughters have received "serious threats." Fauci also expressed a lack of understanding as to why a public health issue has become so politicized.