House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday she would require all House members and aides to wear masks on the floor after Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert — who was often in the chamber interacting with colleagues and refusing to wear a face-covering — tested positive for coronavirus.
“Members and staff will be required to wear masks at all times in the hall of the House,” Pelosi announced from the House floor Wednesday afternoon.
Lawmakers will be permitted to temporarily take off masks when they are speaking.
Members and staff will not be allowed to enter if they don’t wear masks. Pelosi noted that as speaker she has the authority to direct the House sergeant-at-arms to tell members to leave if they do not wear a mask.
Hours after Pelosi announced the House chamber mandate, the House sergeant-at-arms issued an additional set of rules “upon the direction of the Speaker of the House” requiring face coverings in all House office buildings, effective at 8 a.m. ET Thursday.
There are some exceptions, such as when a person is eating or drinking, or giving a speech or interview provided no one is within 6 feet.
“Any person not wearing a face cover will be asked to put on a face cover or leave the building,” the memo announcing the policy said.
House lawmakers are already required to wear masks during committee proceedings, though some members do not always abide by the rule. The Senate, by contrast, has not implemented any mask requirements.
The move from Pelosi came as a growing number of lawmakers expressed concern and raised questions over safety precautions on Capitol Hill after the news of Gohmert’s diagnosis. Gohmert has previously spent time on the House floor during votes speaking to aides and lawmakers without a mask or social distancing.
But despite the Gohmert scare, some GOP members still opted not to wear masks on the House floor earlier on Wednesday prior to Pelosi’s announcement.
Republican Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana was seen sitting on the House floor not wearing a mask. He told CNN last month that wearing a mask is “part of the dehumanization of the children of God. You’re participating in it by wearing a mask.”
GOP Rep. Greg Steube of Florida was seen standing at the back of the chamber not wearing a mask, nor was GOP Rep. Brian Mast, also from Florida, who was sitting one seat apart from Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who had his mask pulled down as he was chatting with Mast.
Mast later told CNN that he “sometimes” wears a mask and sometimes doesn’t.
“We’re all at risk every day of Covid or a host of different things and you bear the risk that you’re willing to undertake for yourself or that you have based upon your health conditions or underlying health conditions or whatever that might be,” Mast said. “In terms of worry for myself, it’s pretty low.”
Republican Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan was also maskless while having another conversation with a maskless member.
Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy does not plan to isolate despite having a recent maskless interaction with Gohmert.
Last week, Roy was on the House floor interacting at length with Gohmert. Neither were wearing masks.
On Wednesday, Roy was in the House and wearing a mask. He said he isn’t going to isolate and wasn’t concerned about potentially getting exposed. “I’m not concerned,” he said.
Roy said that he’s not concerned “anymore than the interactions with perfect strangers on an airplane with circulating air. With cotton masks on an airplane, where everybody is pretending like they’re doing something noble to try to save people from a virus on a cylinder with 50 people on it flying through the air.”
Roy added: “My question to you all is how are people wearing a cotton mask on an airplane saving you from circulating virus on an airplane?”
Roy contended he’s “happy to wear a mask” and is not skeptical of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but questioned whether a “thin piece of cotton” on someone’s face — often with a valve — is enough to prevent the virus from spreading. He argued there are doctors who raise questions about the effectiveness.
“But my question here is we act like wearing this thin piece of cotton, then everybody gets the blessing that they’re somehow saving everybody.”
Roy said, adding that he does wear a mask when he can’t socially distance, though CNN has spotted him interacting at a close proximity with members on the House floor when not at a physical distance.
The House has taken precautions to limit the spread of the virus, including instituting a form of remote voting for members who are unwilling or unable to travel. Members who are physically present now vote in alphabetical groups to limit how many people are on the House floor at the same time. Members have also adopted virtual meeting technology for many House hearings.
In May, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell jointly rejected an offer from the White House to send rapid testing resources to the Capitol complex.
They said they wanted “to keep directing resources to the front-line facilities” fighting the virus, and that lawmakers and staff would use “current testing protocols that the Office of the Attending Physician has put in place until these speedier technologies become more widely available.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday that the House isn’t mandating testing for lawmakers at this point, but “we’re discussing that.”
“This is, I think, a moment where we ought to discuss it again,” Hoyer said.