LOS ANGELES - California Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing new criticism for shedding his face mask in public, rekindling a politically sensitive issue that has shadowed the Democratic governor since he was caught without a face covering at a 2020 party that defied his own pandemic safety orders.
The latest scrutiny came after basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson tweeted a photo of himself with the governor at the NFC championship game Sunday at SoFi Stadium near Los Angeles — both beaming smiles without masks.
Earlier this month, California health officials extended the state’s indoor mask mandate through Feb. 15, as omicron cases surged. At the stadium, ticket holders ages 5 and older must show proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test to enter. Under a Los Angeles County health order, masks are required at all times in the stadium unless a person is eating or drinking.
Newsom told reporters Monday in Los Angeles that he removed his mask only briefly for the photo with Johnson and was otherwise "very judicious" about keeping it in place. He indicated he also removed it occasionally to sip water.
"The rest of the time, I wore it as we all should," he said. "I encourage everybody else to do so."
Republicans saw the photograph as another example of hypocrisy, recalling the months of public shaming Newsom endured after he was caught mask-free at the 2020 birthday party at a luxury restaurant in Northern California. The event helped spur a recall effort that Newsom defeated in September.
The latest image of Newsom without a mask at a public place was criticized by Republican National Committee spokeswoman Hallie Balch, who said the "utter lack of respect that Democrats have for California citizens is appalling."
She added: "California Democrats are hypocrites. When it comes to their own enjoyment, they violate state mandates as well as stadium mandates, which shows that they firmly believe their own rules don’t apply to them."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, apparently alluding to the Newsom photo, said in a statement, "Let’s do away with blanket COVID-19 masking policies – they don’t make a difference when they’re not consistently followed or enforced."
"Masking rules set by the state and county weren’t followed consistently by everyone at yesterday’s NFC Championship," she said. "I strongly believe individuals should be allowed to make an informed choice about whether to mask up or not."
Newsom, when asked if he should have reconsidered removing the mask because of the message it would send, answered: "Of course. I was trying to be gracious."
He added that he had it off for only a "brief second."
However, photos circulating online show Newsom without mask at his seat — it’s dangling from his ear — appearing to challenge his statement he had it off for a "brief second." It wasn’t clear why he had the mask off or for how long. But other photos show him wearing his mask at his seat.
Newsom spokeswoman Erin Mellon said in an email that "the governor acknowledged that he took off his mask for a few moments."
In 2020, Newsom quickly apologized after it was disclosed he attended the birthday party — he called it a "bad mistake"— after lecturing state residents to spurn social gatherings and stay home as the pandemic raged. At the time, photographs showed Newsom and his wife, without masks, at a dinner table with friends and lobbyists.
On Monday, Newsom didn’t go that far. He said at one point, "I made a mis-" but never said the word "mistake."
Johnson also tweeted a photo of himself at the stadium with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, both Democrats, all smiling and without masks. In the past Breed has been spotted in public settings without a mask, including at an indoor nightclub, despite public health department orders that require wearing masks at indoor establishments unless someone is eating or drinking.
Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar said the mayor was wearing a mask throughout the game but "removed it for a brief moment to take a few photos." Breed’s office did not immediately respond to a call and text requesting comment.