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Mask debate reaches peak in U.S. Congress after member tests positive for coronavirus

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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 goes into effect at 8 a.m. Thursday.

Read more: California, Texas, Florida set new daily records for COVID-19 deaths

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.

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“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. “A selfish act,” one lawmaker said.

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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.

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.

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Several GOP senators said they were pushing for more regular testing in the Capitol, as there is currently no testing program or requirements.

Read more: U.S. Attorney General William Barr to be tested for coronavirus

“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.”

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An eight-term lawmaker, Gohmert participated in the House 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.

Gohmert also voted on the House floor Tuesday and attended a House Natural 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, Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, said he would self-quarantine.

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“In the meantime, my work schedule and the lives of my employees are disrupted,” Grijalva said. “This stems from a selfish act by Mr. Gohmert, who is just one member of Congress.”

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When Gohmert flew to Washington on Sunday, he sat next to Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, 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.

Read more: Fears of coronavirus uptick grow in U.S. Midwest as some states resist masks

In a letter late Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., 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 counseling created by these incidents.” He asked that the office take additional measures to publicize its services.

Most senators had warn 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.

In a television interview, 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 KLTV’s East Texas Now.

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Gohmert also suggested that he might have contracted the virus by wearing a mask. 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.

Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said Barr would be tested Wednesday. Gohmert did not wear a mask while questioning Barr, but the seats in the hearing room are spaced many feet apart, and it is common practice to remove masks during questioning.

During the Barr hearing, the committee chair, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chastised some of Gohmert’s GOP colleagues for not wearing masks when they weren’t speaking. Nadler did not call out Gohmert by name.

Nadler tweeted Wednesday: “When individuals refuse to take the necessary precautions it puts everyone at risk. I’ve regularly instructed all members to wear their masks and hope this is a lesson by all my colleagues.”

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Multiple GOP senators said Wednesday they were pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to allow expanded testing. 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.

Blunt said he believes that lawmakers should be tested every time they travel and that staff and others should be tested occasionally. He said McConnell and the Capitol physician would have to be on board for that to happen, and he doesn’t know why it hasn’t.

Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.