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Monday, September 27, 2021

In the Capitol, revival of mask mandate ignites partisan recriminations

Lawmakers from districts with low rates of infection and high rates of vaccination — many of them Democrats — are compliantly wearing their masks, while members of Congress from areas where the virus is spreading rapidly — including many Republicans — have resisted.

By: New York Times | Washington |
July 29, 2021 2:44:00 pm
Reporters wearing face masks at the Capitol on Wednesday (Photo: New York Times)

Late Tuesday night, after the attending physician of the Capitol declared that the “People’s House” was once again under a mask mandate, the response from Republicans was immediate and emphatic.

“Make no mistake,” the minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, wrote, “The threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.”

“More freedom. Less Fauci,” quipped Republican Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, referring to Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the right’s favorite boogeymen.

It was not clear what “liberal government officials” would get out of forcing Americans back into masks. Few relish donning their face coverings again. But the House mandate appeared to be playing out as a parable for the rest of the nation.

Lawmakers from districts with low rates of infection and high rates of vaccination — many of them Democrats — are compliantly wearing their masks, while members of Congress from areas where the virus is spreading rapidly — including many Republicans — have resisted, or are wearing their masks under protest.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, wearing a face mask, walks with staffers after her weekly news conference in Washington on Wednesday. (Photo: New York Times)

In something of a twist, Republicans have co-opted a Democratic phrase and are insisting that they are the ones following the science, given Washington’s high vaccination rate and relatively low case count. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says its latest mask recommendations reflect the resurgent coronavirus, driven by a new, highly contagious variant ripping through unvaccinated populations.

Asked about McCarthy’s comments Wednesday, Pelosi was overheard retorting, “He’s such a moron.” (She later softened her tone, saying the top Republican’s position was “not wise.”)

“If she’s so brilliant,” McCarthy shot back, “can she tell me where the science in the building changes between the House and the Senate?” The Senate has not mandated masks, adopting voluntary recommendations instead.

Later, in a speech on the House floor, McCarthy accused the speaker of violating her own rules and suggested the House’s mandate was “just the beginning” of a power trip by Democrats to roll back into place restrictions on social gatherings and in-person school.

For the CDC, the director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said Wednesday, the tipping point was new evidence that vaccinated Americans with “breakthrough” Covid-19 cases could infect others.

“Vaccinated people who are the breakthroughs have the same amount of virus as the unvaccinated people,” she said on “Doctor Radio Reports,” a show on SiriusXM. “And that is very much leading us to believe that it is probably the case that those vaccinated breakthrough infections, rare as they might be, have the potential to infect others.”

Whether the CDC can succeed in getting Americans back into masks will play out in microcosm in the Capitol, that rare place where ardent conservatives mingle with fervent liberals on a daily basis.

(From left) Senators Lisa Murkowski, Bill Cassidy, Rob Portman and Mitt Romney speak to reporters. (Photo: New York Times)

Following the CDC’s guidance, Dr Brian P Monahan, the attending physician of the Capitol, kicked off the effort Tuesday night, restoring a mask mandate for the House that he lifted only weeks ago. The House, he said, represented “a collection of individuals traveling weekly from various risk areas.” The Senate is a much smaller body where all but a few members are vaccinated.

Monahan warned gravely of the spreading delta variant, which has sent coronavirus cases soaring by 145% over the past 14 days, to a seven-day average Tuesday of 63,248. A month ago, the nation recorded fewer than 12,000 cases.

Hospitalizations are up 70%. Deaths, a lagging indicator, have risen 6% over two weeks.

“The delta variant virus has been detected in Washington DC, and in the Capitol buildings,” Monahan said. “It represents a dire health risk to unvaccinated individuals and is not without some risk to the vaccinated individuals or their unvaccinated household contacts.”

The virus is making the doctor’s point. The Senate homeland security committee called off a business meeting where it had been scheduled to advance two key nominees after staff members who came into contact with the panel tested positive for the virus despite being vaccinated, a committee aide said. A vaccinated senior aide to Pelosi was infected, as were other House and Senate aides.

Yet the Republican response on Capitol Hill has been unequivocal — and angry. An unmasked Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, moved to adjourn the House and forced all its members to convene to vote him down. Moments before, he had elaborately tied the mask mandate to one of Republicans’ choice political issues: the crush of migrants crossing the southwestern border, who he said were “heavily infected.”

“We have a crisis at our border and we are playing footsie with mask mandates in the people’s house,” Roy said, his voice raised.

While dutifully wearing a mask, Republican Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the Administration Committee, said he worried Monahan was “getting pressure from the speaker sometimes to issue guidance that is motivated less by science and more by politics.” Republicans later raised the charge to Monahan directly during an in-person meeting, accusing him of acting based on slapdash data and the speaker’s political interests — a claim he strenuously denied.

All told, a dozen or more Republicans appeared to flout the rule on the House floor. When a staff member handed a mask to one of them, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, she tossed it back.

House rules say that any lawmaker who does not wear a mask in specified spaces in the Capitol complex can be fined $500 or more.

Democrats, many of them already angry about conservatives stoking vaccine hesitancy, were on a short fuse. Just off the House floor, a masked Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., publicly accosted an unvaccinated Republican colleague, Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, calling him “selfish” for refusing to wear a mask.

Donalds shot back, “Mind your business, man” and walked off in a huff. He later voted without a mask on and would not say if he planned to get vaccinated because he contracted COVID-19 in the fall and believed he still had antibodies.

“Listen, the rule is stupid,” he said. “Let’s just be very blunt about this. Yesterday, we were on the floor for all total two hours and some change. If Covid-19 has been swarming through the Capitol, we all have it.”

While the House raced to lock down, senators appeared to be in no rush.

Senate Republicans have generally taken a more conciliatory tack than their House counterparts, with their leaders pleading with conservatives to drop their hesitance and get vaccinated. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, planned to use tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to run radio ads in his home state heralding the vaccine as a “modern medical miracle.”

“If you haven’t been vaccinated, do the right thing,” he says in the ad, in which he recounts his own fight with polio.

Still, when McConnell strolled to the Senate floor Wednesday, he did not don a face covering. He said Tuesday that the high vaccination rate among lawmakers and Capitol aides gave him confidence to leave it off.

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