Trust your fellow lawmakers? Mask wars heat up an already contentious Capitol Hill environment

WASHINGTON – New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding masks relies on Americans being honest about their vaccination status. 

Days after the CDC update, trust on Capitol Hill is fraying rapidly as several Republican lawmakers refuse to confirm they have been vaccinated while bucking mask rules in the House chamber. 

In the halls of the Capitol this week, lawmakers from both parties and chambers, staff, and reporters have been slowly shedding their masks. Until the vaccination rate is higher for lawmakers, that is not a possibility yet on the House floor,  Democratic leaders say.  

In defiance of rules regarding COVID-19, which require members to wear masks on the House floor, at least 10 Republican lawmakers took off their masks during a series of votes Tuesday. They congregated at the front of the chamber, smiling, laughing and posing for pictures. They were confronted by masked Democratic colleagues in several heated discussions.

A day later, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., introduced a resolution to change the face-covering guidance in the chamber.

The riff over mask-wearing and vaccination status is the latest chapter in the debate over COVID-19 protocols that has roiled the House for more than a year.

Several Republicans have balked at House rules regarding masks and other precautions, such as proxy voting. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insists that ongoing vigilance is necessary.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., one of the Democrats to approach his bare-faced GOP colleagues Tuesday, told USA TODAY he is “not interested in them getting fined. I’m interested in them getting vaccinated.” 

What are the rules?

House Democrats imposed rules in January that stated members who did not wear a mask in the chamber would be warned, then fined $500 for the next offense and $2,500 for following offenses.

A Capitol official told USA TODAY  that three Republicans were issued $500 fines for defying the mask rules Tuesday: Reps. Brian Mast of Florida, Beth Van Duyne of Texas and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa. 

Seven other Republicans were issued warnings after Tuesday: Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Chip Roy of Texas, Bob Good of Virginia, Mary Miller of Illinois and Louie Gohmert of Texas.

Just filed @SpeakerPelosi’s letter warning me to follow her mask rule. pic.twitter.com/KwKlbAV0Ml

Guidance from the CDC released last week said people who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear masks, even indoors, except in crowded settings. People who aren’t fully vaccinated should maintain social distance and wear a mask, according to the guidance. 

McCarthy’s resolution, provided to USA TODAY, calls on the attending physician to “take timely action” to update the mask-wearing guidance throughout House spaces and the chamber to be “consistent with the public guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” 

Every House Democrat is vaccinated, according to a CNN tally of members.

About 44.8% of House GOP members are vaccinated, according to CNN, but more than 100 Republican offices did not respond to the survey, so that number could be higher. Several House Republicans have flatly refused to say whether they are vaccinated – sending the CDC’s recommended honor system into murky territory on Capitol Hill

“Do you want them breathing in your face on the strength of their honor?” Pelosi said Thursday.

“This is about science and governance. We have a responsibility to make sure that the House of Representatives chamber is not a petri dish because of the selfishness of some not to be vaccinated or wear a mask,” she continued.

Massie is not vaccinated and said he would not get the vaccine because he tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies in July. The CDC recommends people still get vaccinated regardless of whether they have had coronavirus.

Freshman congresswoman Greene, who insists her vaccine record is protected by  the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, won’t say whether she has been vaccinated. She said, “We need to … stop the vaccines” on a radio show this month. 

[email protected] cannot force any member of congress or staff or any citizen or child of the U.S. to take a vaccine.

Especially vaccines that are NOT even FDA approved, which #Covid Vax are NOT.

Vax records, along with ALL medical records are private due to HIPPA rights.

Cont’d

Several GOP lawmakers have used HIPAA as a defense to not disclose whether they have been vaccinated. HIPAA prohibits health professionals from sharing identified information without permission in most circumstances. It does not prevent places of employment from asking about vaccination records, according to experts.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law, told USA TODAY that HIPAA “protects people against having their provider disclose their medical information. It does not mean they cannot disclose it, and it only applies to providers towards others – it does not mean your employer can’t ask.”

To mask or not to mask? US adapts to new CDC guidelines

A few of the Republicans calling for changes in the House’s guidelines have been vaccine advocates. 

Miller-Meeks, a former Army doctor and a practicing ophthalmologist, has been one of the GOP’s most outspoken advocates for vaccines, visiting vaccination sites in her districts and administering them herself. 

On the House floor last month, she spoke about lifting the mask mandate and told Fox News Thursday that she did so to show “we could be the leaders we are elected to be, and we could be a show of normalcy and what would happen if you got vaccinated as a motivation for people to get vaccinated.”

New guidelines in the House

Members from both chambers wish to shed their masks, several lawmakers told USA TODAY. Outside the House Chamber, Republican lawmakers almost immediately take off their masks, and some of their Democratic colleagues follow suit.  

Raskin, vice chair of the Committee on House Administration in charge of day-to-day operations of the House, told USA TODAY he told his Republican colleagues that “100% of the Democrats have been vaccinated, so the only reason we can’t take our masks off on the floor is because of them.”

Guidelines sent out Wednesday by the Office of the Attending Physician on Capitol Hill, which were provided to USA TODAY, say the “mask requirement and other guidelines remain unchanged until all Members and floor staff are fully vaccinated.” 

“Extra precautions are necessary given the substantial number of partially vaccinated, unvaccinated, and vaccine-indeterminate individuals,” the guidelines continue. 

Until the number of Republicans who are vaccinated drastically improves or the CDC guidelines are loosened again, it is unlikely the Housewill allow everyone to shed their masks, according to a person with direct knowledge of House leaders’ conversations on the issue. 

“That may change in the future based upon degree of entire group vaccination attained and prevailing coronavirus community risk,” the guidelines from the attending physician say. 

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“We want to get through this as soon as possible. Does anybody feel like wearing a mask?” Pelosi said Thursday. 

A vote on McCarthy’s resolution to change the mask-wearing rules was tabled in the House, which is controlled by Democrats, by a vote of 218-210 Wednesday.  

Pelosi said during her weekly news conference the following day that it “is unfortunate that a large number of people in the Congress are (not vaccinated),” but she hopes “that this new CDC guidance will encourage” them to be. 

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