After Viral Photo, John Kerry Says He Only Momentarily Would Have Taken Off His Face Mask

John Kerry spoke out in support of face masks on Thursday while defending himself from a widely circulated photo that appeared to show him without a face mask on during a recent flight.

The controversy began on Wednesday, when conservative news writer Neil McCabe posted a photo on Twitter that he said showed Kerry, a former presidential candidate and the current special presidential envoy for climate, with his mask off while seated on a flight.

"Biden's @ClimateEnvoy John Kerry, took off his mask as he settled into a book in his first-class seat just before takeoff today on an @AmericanAir flight Boston to DC," McCabe wrote, adding, "He was not eating, nor drinking."

President Joe Biden — who named Kerry, 77, as his climate envoy in November — has touted face mask as a central component of controlling the spread of the virus, in contrast to his predecessor.

Biden himself is often photographed wearing two face coverings: a surgical mask worn over an N95 mask.

"When a president doesn't wear a mask, or makes fun of folks like me when I was wearing a mask for a long time, then people say, 'Well, it mustn't be that important,' " Biden said in an October town hall.

Kerry's critics — many of them right-wing personalities like Donald Trump Jr. — responded to the social media photo Wednesday by arguing he was flouting health guidelines and getting a pass while others, including kids, have been kicked off of flights for not complying with mask rules.

In response, Kerry tweeted that "if" the mask was taken off his face, it was only for a moment.

"Feels like there's some St. Patrick's day 'malarkey' afoot on Twitter. Let's be clear: If I dropped my mask to one ear on a flight, it was momentary," the former secretary of state and Massachusetts senator wrote Thursday. "I wear my mask because it saves lives and stops the spread. It's what the science tells us to do."

In a statement to PEOPLE, a spokesperson for American Airlines said that no one on board Kerry's flight complained about his lack of a mask, nor did the crew observe that he wasn't wearing one.

"Masks are required on board our aircraft," the airline's statement read. "Our team works diligently to make sure customers are wearing masks properly as they travel with us, and flight attendants pass through the cabin several times during flight to ensure compliance."

The statement continued: "The crew did not observe Secretary Kerry without a mask, and they were not alerted by other customers to a non-compliance issue. We continue to review the matter and we are reaching out to Secretary Kerry to underscore that all customers are expected to wear masks for the duration of their trip."

Kerry has been vaccinated against COVID-19, though masks are still recommended for those who are inoculated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced fully vaccinated people can safely hold small, indoor gatherings without a mask.

In public spaces such as airplanes, however, health officials urge even vaccinated people to continue wearing face masks and maintaining physical distance to protect those who have not been vaccinated or those who are immune-compromised.

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