VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia — The pandemic is deceptive. You know it’s here, all around you, but you can’t see it or hear or feel it.

You cruise down near-empty streets that once were filled with commuter traffic, you go into restaurants that have only two or three customers or maybe none, and you see a majority of people wearing face masks.

That’s a majority, not most. A lot of people don’t wear them for all the usual reasons. They’re inconvenient, they’re not needed. A young woman who works at the counter of a clothing store tells of one customer who had a fit and walked out when told she had to wear one. At hotels you can’t enter the lobby without having a mask on.

That’s still not stopping people from flocking to the beaches of this coastal city at the height of the tourist season.

Business isn’t as good as in previous years but crowds still gather in alarming numbers, oblivious to fears of a virus they say affects only a few, surely not us. And then there are the protesters flooding the downtown areas of some cities with “agendas” ranging from “reform” to “revolution.” They, too, think they are immune.

Confusingly, President Trump has gone from saying the virus will go away to warning that it may get worse before it gets better; from praising Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief government immunologist who by now is probably America’s most famous medicine man, to criticizing him.

Trump may not like all Fauci’s assessments but he can’t get rid of him as if he were some disposable Cabinet secretary, for fear of a chorus of derision from all his critics.

It may be a little early to say the polls are right, Trump is behind and he’s sure to lose the election in November, but if he does lose, the reason will not be the political protests or his ambivalent foreign policy but his failure to come up with a national response to COVID-19.

He’s not saying people are stupid to be crowding the beaches, and he’s not criticizing governors for opening and then shutting schools in an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Beneath the bluff and bluster, Trump has no idea what to do. He has no notion exercising the strong leadership needed to guide the United States through the pandemic, of sticking with a clear national program.

He’s only recently donned a face mask for the first time, and he doesn’t appear too happy to have had to make that concession. He obviously did so on the strong advice of the people closest to him, including his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.

If he’s had to change course, he’s still not willing to come across as a decisive leader with the will to confront realistically what may be the biggest crisis of his presidency.

Instead, Trump prefers to juggle figures, engaging in voodoo mathematics and semantics to buttress his claim that actually the United States, the nation hardest hit by the pandemic, has had the best record in dealing with it. He would not want to acknowledge it, but it’s almost a cliché by now to compare the U.S. response to those in South Korea and Germany, both of which have been quite rigorous in containing the disease.

The United States no doubt is a hard country to govern. State and local governments, private groups, interests and individuals assert their rights. You see that happening on a clear day in this sprawling city where talk of the pandemic vies for air time with news of a storm, wreaking havoc for a few hours before blowing northward, leaving the beaches to the fun-loving crowds.

For Trump, the best news would be for Dr. Fauci to announce a vaccine, a miracle cure that really worked. Incredibly, Peter Navarro, responsible for Trump’s hard line on trade issues, especially with China, has been on U.S. networks talking up hydroxychloroquine, as Trump was doing months ago.

Fauci, not to mention the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have long since said this drug is not only ineffective but may be dangerous. Perhaps the United States would be better off, as long as Navarro is usurping the job of medicine man, if Fauci would take on Navarro’s role as trade adviser.

Or maybe Fauci should be telling him, you stick to trade, let me worry about the virus.