U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Capitol officials issued broad new mask requirements Wednesday after a Republican member of Congress tested positive for the coronavirus. The member, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, often shunned wearing masks and was known to vote without one.
Pelosi announced Wednesday evening that all members will be required to wear a mask when voting on the House floor, and that one will be provided if anyone forgets.
Several hours later, the House sergeant-at-arms and the Capitol’s top physician issued an order requiring masks inside House office buildings, with few exceptions. That mandate went into effect at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Pelosi said failure to wear a mask on the House floor is a “serious breach of decorum” for which members could be removed from the chamber. Members will be able to temporarily remove them while speaking, however. In the House office buildings, people can remove them to eat, drink and give interviews, among a few other specific situations.
“It’s a sign of respect for the health, safety and well-being of others present in the chamber and in surrounding areas,” Pelosi said.
Gohmert tested positive just before he was scheduled to travel to his home state with President Donald Trump. He was forced to cancel his plans and was immediately criticized by colleagues for not always wearing a mask.
WATCH l Trump in Texas, but not Gohmert:
The 66-year-old Gohmert, one of the House’s most conservative and outspoken members, told a Texas news station that he tested positive before boarding Air Force One and planned to self-quarantine. He is at least the 10th member of Congress known to have tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the interview with KLTV’s East Texas Now, Gohmert said he was given a rapid test by the White House that came back positive and then took a more thorough test to rule out a false positive. That test came back positive, too, so “apparently I have it,” Gohmert told .
Gohmert suggested that he might have contracted the virus by wearing a mask.
“I can’t help but wonder if by keeping a mask on, I might have put some germs, some of the virus, on the mask and breathed it in.”
Medical experts say masks are one of the best ways to prevent transmission of the virus, which is thought to mainly spread through people who are in close contact.
‘Perfect petri dish’
Gohmert’s positive test raised further questions about the lack of mask and testing requirements in the Capitol as members frequently fly back-and-forth from their hometowns and gather for votes, hearings and news conferences.
“I think particularly for members of Congress who are going back and forth, they represent sort of the perfect petri dish for how you spread a disease,” said GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, chair of the Senate Rules Committee. “You send 535 people out to 535 different locations, on about 1,000 different airplanes, and bring them back and see what happens.”
Blunt said he believes that lawmakers should be tested every time they travel and that staff and others should be tested occasionally.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Pelosi jointly rejected Trump’s offer for rapid testing for lawmakers in May, saying they wanted instead to direct resources to front-line workers.
An eight-term lawmaker, Gohmert participated in the House’s judiciary committee hearing Tuesday where Attorney General William Barr testified. Before the hearing, Gohmert was seen approaching the meeting room behind Barr, and neither man was wearing a mask.
Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said Barr would be tested.
Gohmert also voted on the House floor Tuesday and attended its national resources committee hearing, where a staff member sat close behind him on the dais as he talked without a mask. The chair of that committee, Democrat Raul Grijalva of Arizona, said he would self-quarantine.
Several lawmakers take precautions
When Gohmert flew to Washington on Sunday, he sat next to Texas Republican congresswoman Kay Granger, who also went into quarantine after learning of her colleague’s test results. A third lawmaker, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, said he was advised to quarantine after having dinner with Gohmert on Monday.
Mask wearing had been strongly encouraged but not enforced for lawmakers in the Capitol, while other workers and law enforcement officers were required to wear masks. Committees had rules requiring face coverings in hearing rooms, but until now, they hadn’t been required in hallways or personal offices.
In a letter late Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, wrote to the House Office of Employee Assistance and, citing Gohmert’s positive test, asked if officials there had “sufficient resources to meet the greater demand for staff counselling created by these incidents.” He asked that the office take additional measures to publicize its services.
Most senators had worn masks but a few had refused, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a doctor who says it’s unnecessary because he previously tested positive for the virus. There is no proven science saying that a person cannot get the virus again.