Pope reverts to mask-less old ways at indoor audience

ROME – A day after donning a face mask for the first time during a liturgical service, Pope Francis was back to his mask-less old ways Wednesday despite surging coronavirus infections across Europe.

Francis shunned a face mask again during his Wednesday general audience in the Vatican auditorium, and didn’t wear one when he greeted a half-dozen mask-less bishops at the end. He shook hands and leaned in to chat privately with each one.

While the clerics wore masks while seated during the audience, all but one took his mask off to speak to the pope. Only one kept it on, and by the end of his tete-a-tete with Francis, had lowered it under his chin.

Vatican regulations now require facemasks to be worn indoors and out where distancing can’t be “always guaranteed.” The Vatican hasn’t responded to questions about why the pope wasn’t following either Vatican regulations or basic public health measures to prevent COVID-19.

Francis explained to the audience why he didn’t plunge into the crowd at the start of the audience as he usually would do. But he said his distance from them was for their own well-being, to prevent crowds from forming around him.

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“I’m sorry for this, but it’s for your own safety,“ he said. “Rather than get close to you, shake your hands and greet you, I greet you from far away. But know that I’m close to you with my heart.”

He didn’t address his decision to forego wearing a mask.

Francis did, however, wear a white face mask throughout an interreligious prayer service in downtown Rome on Tuesday, removing it only to speak. He had previously only been seen wearing one once before as he entered and exited his car in a Vatican courtyard on Sept. 9. Italian law requires masks indoors and out.

At 83 and with part of a lung removed when he was in his 20s due to illness, the pope would be at high risk for COVID-19 complications. He has urged the faithful to comply with government mandates to protect public health.

In the past week, 11 Swiss Guards and a resident of the hotel where Francis lives have tested positive.

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In Italy, coronavirus cases are surging, with the Lazio region around Vatican City among the hardest hit. Lazio has more people hospitalized and in intensive care than any other region except Italy’s most populous and hardest-hit region, Lombardy.

Inside the Vatican auditorium Wednesday, the crowd wore masks as did the Swiss Guards. But Francis and his two aides didn’t.

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