Capitol siege increases tensions in House over COVID-19 precautions

House Democrats are angry some Republicans refused to wear masks during the attack last week, and they’re suggesting fines and removal from the Capitol grounds if precautions aren’t taken seriously.

Trump supporters gesture to U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Jan. 11, 2021, 8 p.m.

Lawmakers are still processing the aftermath and consequences of last week’s siege on Congress, including the possible spread of COVID-19.

When rioters breached the Capitol building, many were maskless, making identification for law enforcement a bit easier, but possibly aiding in the spread of the coronavirus.

“I am deeply concerned about the spread of the virus across the Capitol complex as a result of this mob attack by maskless rioters,” said Democratic Rep. Robin Kelly in a statement to National Journal. “Scientific evidence clearly shows that virus particles live in the air for hours.”

“The health—and very life—of every single member, [aide], member of the press, security and support staff on the Capitol grounds was put at risk by simply walking through the building in the aftermath of the riot,” she added.

It’s not just rioters facing the ire of House Democrats this week. Republican members who refused to mask up while waiting out the riots in safe rooms with other lawmakers have infuriated their colleagues.

“[M]any of my Republican Congressional colleagues were not wearing masks,” said Kelly, an Illinois Democrat. “This was flat-out irresponsible and showed a selfish disregard for the health of their colleagues, the staff, and security. I was shocked at their lack of concern.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell told National Journal that there were several Republican lawmakers not wearing their masks in the undisclosed location she was in Wednesday.

“We were in those rooms with, in the room I was in, 15 to 20 Republicans that refused to wear their masks, treated it as a joke,” said the Michigan Democrat. “I said to one of my colleagues, who is Republican and who I respect a great deal, I said, ‘This is ridiculous. We’re escaping one thing, and I’m sitting in a room with people that don’t take COVID seriously.’ And he said, ‘Debbie, you got to deal with the danger that’s the closest to you.’”

For Dingell, Wednesday’s events exacerbated her “fury” with Republican lawmakers, who she says have not been following COVID-19 precautions generally, not just during the rioting. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had placed a mask mandate on the House chamber, but Dingell is asking leadership to enforce mask requirements with fines.

“These members go on the floor, they get into fights with the staff about wearing their mask on the floor,” said Dingell. “They get on the floor, they flaunt it, they take it off, they lower their nose, they wear it on their chin, they think it’s an act of defiance, they think it’s funny, they show no respect for anybody. I believe very strongly, and expressed this to leadership, that we need to put a fine on it.”

Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, suggested members who don’t follow the mask requirement should be removed from the Capitol. “One of the things that we have called upon the speaker to do is to make sure that there are enforceable rules and that people will be removed from the House floor and from any place within the Capitol grounds if they are not wearing a mask properly,” she said.

She described watching her Republican colleagues “smirking” as they refused to take a mask in the safe room Wednesday. While Wild acknowledged there are Republicans who do wear masks consistently, she said others have not been compliant.

“I try not to spend any time around people who are not masked,” said Wild. “The only people I ever encounter anymore who aren’t masked are Republican members of Congress.”

The Office of the Attending Physician confirmed Democratic members’ concerns Sunday when the office issued a warning to lawmakers that they may have been exposed to the virus while staying in a secure location.

By Monday afternoon, Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a cancer survivor who turns 76 next month, announced that she tested positive for COVID-19. The New Jersey lawmaker believes she was exposed during the riots when she was in a protective room with members who did not wear masks.

“I received a positive test result for COVID-19, and am home resting at this time,” she said in a statement. “While I am experiencing mild, cold-like symptoms, I remain in good spirits and will continue to work on behalf of my constituents.”

She later tweeted that on her doctor’s advice, she was heading to a local hospital for monoclonal antibody treatment.

Attention is turning to President-elect Joe Biden’s upcoming inauguration, where events were already going to look quite different because of COVID-19 precautions. Lawmakers and D.C. officials are discussing security measures while the District has experienced a coronavirus surge in recent days.

Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a press conference Monday that she requested the president declare a pre-emergency disaster for D.C. “This is necessary because the inauguration poses several unprecedented challenges that exceed the scope of our traditional planning processes,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic and of course the domestic terror attack on the United States Capitol.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the incoming chair of the Senate Rules Committee, said in a statement last week that Biden will still be sworn in on the West Front of the Capitol.

Blunt told reporters on Thursday that for health concerns, having the ceremony outside is better than inside the Capitol. He said that the already scaled-down crowd of 3,000 would have to be even smaller in order to abide by social distancing measures if it were moved indoors.

Senate offices that responded to National Journal’s questions about coronavirus concerns during the riots seemed to have less to worry about than their House colleagues.

“The number of House members without face coverings is alarming, however, almost all senators continue to follow public health guidelines and mostly had the ability to do so on Wednesday, with the exception of certain security movements,” said Sue Walitsky, spokesperson for Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin. “Most senators have been vaccinated already, which eases some worries but still requires adherence to social distancing, face coverings, and hand washing.”

Steven Sandberg, a spokesperson for Sen. Bob Menendez, said the New Jersey Democrat evacuated to an undisclosed location only with members of his own staff, “so he doesn’t share the same personal concerns about potential COVID exposure.”

Independent Sen. Angus King from Maine also chose not to evacuate to a secure location with his colleagues. “Senator King had such concerns amid Wednesday’s chaos—and declined sharing safe space in tight quarters with so many colleagues,” said King’s spokesperson Matthew Felling.

Zach C. Cohen contributed to this article.

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