Fauci Hearing: Who Were Those Masked (and Unmasked) Senators?

The proceedings were carried on cable news. But the aesthetic was low-budget “Westworld.”

The Senate Health Committee’s questioning of four administration health officials Tuesday morning, on the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, was the highest-profile congressional testimony in weeks. As many states move toward reopening even as the death tolls rise, the subject was if, when and how things might safely get back to normal-ish.

But everything in the Senate’s surreal and desolate visual presentation only underlined that we are light-years away from normal.

Typically, a high-profile Senate appearance is the theater of congestion. The testifiers appear, flanked by advisers, and face a forest of cameras and microphones as they stare down a crowded bank of legislators.

Tuesday’s proceedings looked instead like a tribunal in some depopulated cyber-western dystopia.

A remote-operated camera robo-swiveled on the open chamber floor, as a couple of human photographers darted about. The image of Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee — the committee chair, self-quarantining after an aide tested positive for the coronavirus — hovered on a screen above an empty chair. The guests all appeared virtually, three of them also in some form of precautionary isolation.

And the handful of senators attending in person kept a cautious distance, with Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, shrouded in a bandanna as if he’d just come back from robbing a stagecoach.

This did not look like the America that President Trump painted Monday, when he declared that the country had “prevailed” against its recent challenge. It was a ghost town with everything but the tumbleweeds.

The guests included Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the assistant secretary for health; and Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

But top billing belonged to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and the administration’s point person on pandemic response, whose boss in the White House prefers wishful triumphalism, tweets and ramblings to following doctor’s orders.

An advance report said that Dr. Fauci planned to warn of “needless suffering and death” if states rushed to reopen before meeting guideposts of progress, suggesting that, out of Mr. Trump’s eye line, he might offer harsher medicine.

Instead, he slipped the scalpel in gently. (The ranking committee Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington, ended up pre-empting his “suffering and death” line in her opening questions.) He warned that “the consequences could be really serious” if states moved too fast, and — countering a Trumpist insinuation that the Covid-19 death count, now over 80,000, has been inflated — agreed that the actual toll is likely higher than the official figures.

But he also offered a spoonful of optimism, venturing that it was “more likely than not” that a vaccine would be available in a year or two, while maintaining his genial family-practitioner-from-Brooklyn tone. Away from the presidential briefings that played like “The Apprentice,” he likened the process of approving potential treatments to “Shark Tank.” (The references change, but the reality-TV-ness of this administration never goes away.)

The sharpest conflict came when Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, assailed “doom and gloom” predictions about the virus and told Dr. Fauci, “I don’t think you’re the end-all” with regard to reopening policy. Replied the immunologist to the ophthalmologist: “I give advice according to the best scientific evidence.”

It’s possible that the logistics lent themselves less to theatrics and confrontation. Amid the usual lags and audio glitches — Mr. Redfield’s connection was especially shaky — it’s hard to have a good fight over videoconference.

Instead, the background details of the telecommuting legislators competed with the public-health questions and speechifying. Senator Mike Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, spoke from an office outfitted with a set of desk antlers, while Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, was backed by a Red Hot Chili Peppers poster.

The most pointed political battle of the morning was less about what came out of the mouths of senators than what covered them, or didn’t. The Democrats in the committee room mostly wore masks. The Republicans largely didn’t, or removed them before the proceedings started.

Face masks — worn mainly to keep the wearer from inadvertently infecting others — have become a metonym for the now-partisan argument over how worrisome the pandemic is, how much people should change their routines because of it and the extent to which people are morally and socially obligated to inconvenience themselves for the good of others.

What should be a matter of objective public-health practice has become one more polarizing cultural signal, splashed across your kisser. Fittingly, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of the more moderate Republicans and facing a tough re-election campaign, began the hearing with no mask, then put one on, as if trying to keep one lung in each camp.

Dr. Fauci was alone and maskless on video. But late in the hearing, he spoke approvingly of how, outdoors in Washington, D.C., “you can see many people out there with masks on, which gives me some degree of comfort that people are taking this very seriously.”

If it was a comment on what we witnessed in the hearing room, he kept it oblique. That’s the beauty of videoconferencing: No one knows exactly what you’re seeing on your own screen.