California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s trip to a posh restaurant in November to celebrate a friend’s birthday prompted swift backlash – and even Newsom himself said he could have modeled better behavior.

His ill-conceived dinner came after pleas to locals to avoid social gatherings to stop the spread of COVID-19 over the holidays. It was just one instance of a politician who endorsed coronavirus-related restrictions engaging in behavior they told their constituents to avoid. Politicians are human messengers, experts told USA TODAY. They can – and sometimes do – fail to model the proper behavior to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That doesn’t mean people should give up on mitigation measures recommended by public health officials like wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands.

Still, the actions of politicians can do “extraordinary damage,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director for the American Public Health Association. “You lose the authority to be able to get people to do what you ask,” Benjamin told USA TODAY. “It also undermines people’s belief that what you’re saying is real, so people don’t follow your advice because they don’t think you’re serious about it.” What Americans should do is follow the advice of public health officials, experts said — even if politicians fail to do the same. The coronavirus is raging through the United States, with more than 16.2 million confirmed cases Sunday night and record-breaking daily death totals.

“We actually have, in this country, standardized emergency protocols for different versions of crisis,” Deborah Glik, professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said. “Fire, you look to the fire service. Terrorism, you look to the FBI or the police. In a pandemic, the leadership falls on the health sector.”

Trust public health leaders to model appropriate behavior

Newsom isn’t the only politician who ducked his own coronavirus restrictions. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock apologized for flying to visit family members in Mississippi even as he tweeted out advice to residents asking them to avoid traveling over Thanksgiving. In early November, as health officials warned of an impending COVID-19 spike, Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, hosted an outdoor wedding and reception with 20 guests for his daughter at a trendy hotel near downtown. He followed that with a vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.