Washington – House Republicans staged a maskless protest on Thursday against the latest COVID-19 protocols in Congress, put in place amid a spike in new infections in Washington, D.C., and around the country.
The protest by House GOP lawmakers, who marched over to the Senate without masks, was a display of defiance after the Capitol's attending physician Brian Monahan reimposed a mask mandate for lawmakers and congressional staff. Monahan cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new recommendation that vaccinated and unvaccinated people should wear masks in indoor spaces as the highly transmissible delta variant drives up COVID caseloads.
The GOP protest puts a fresh spotlight on the deep partisanship over masks, as Republican officials continue to question the science behind mask wearing, while health experts say they protect the vulnerable and unvaccinated.
The group of GOP representatives – including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who have been highly critical of masks mandates – entered the Senate chamber, while Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, spoke out against the House mask rules.
The House Republicans sat silently behind Lee as he railed against the CDC and questioned the science behind the mask mandates. GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee joined Lee on the Senate floor and followed his remarks with their own speeches blasting the House mask rules.
Cruz accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., of being "drunk on power" and "disrespecting" the Constitution.
Pelosi defended the mask mandate on Wednesday, saying the House is simply following federal medical guidance.
"It's (the) decision of the Capitol physician, who is following the guidance of the CDC about the masks," she told reporters during a press briefing.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in rare instances, vaccinated people who suffer "breakthrough" infections may be contagious and can spread the virus to others.
The mask issue became a particular flashpoint in Congress on Thursday after Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger ordered officers to enforce the new mask guidelines across the Capitol complex.
Manger said those who refused could be denied entry to the House-side of the Capitol and suggested those who defied the mandate could even be arrested.
"If a visitor or staff member fails to wear a mask after a request is made to do so, the visitor or staff shall be denied entry to the House Office Buildings or House-side of the U.S. Capitol," Manger wrote in a letter to Capitol Police officers. "Any person who fails to either comply or leave the premises after being asked to do so would be subject to an arrest for Unlawful Entry."
Manger's letter said that although the House mask mandate applies to members of Congress as well as staff and visitors, lawmakers would not be subject to arrest. Instead, officers will report maskless lawmakers to supervising officers, who will then refer such matters to the House Sergeant at Arms, Manger’s letter says.
Several House Republicans first shared their outrage over the mask requirements and Manger's enforcement letter on Twitter, accusing Pelosi of abusing her power as speaker.
“In today’s edition of Pelosi’s abuse of power, Capitol Police have been directed to arrest staff and visitors to comply with her mask mandate for vaccinated individuals,” Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., tweeted Thursday alongside photos of the letter.
“I will not comply, Nancy,” Cammack wrote in a separate tweet.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky, shared a phot of himself with three members of his staff standing in the Rotana, between the Senate and House chambers. “I took my staff to the middle of the Capitol to visit the line between the House and Senate where COVID stops,” Massie’s tweeted, referring to the lack of mask requirements in the Senate chamber.
A few hours after the onslaught of Republican criticism, Capitol Police tweeted a short statement clarifying the enforcement policy.
"Regarding the House mask rule, there is no reason it should ever come to someone being arrested," the statement read. "Anyone who does not follow the rules will be asked to wear a mask or leave the premises."
Thursday's protest come a day after Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., traded insults over the mask mandate.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: House Republicans protest mask mandate as infections surge