WASHINGTON — Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis are threatening to bar Republican members from participating future meetings in-person after they showed up to a hearing on Friday without masks.
Subcommittee Chair Jim Clyburn is sending a letter to ranking member Steve Scalise, warning he would not recognize members in hearings and meetings without proper face coverings; the chair must recognize members to speak and participate in committee business.
“Going forward, as long as the Attending Physician’s requirement to wear masks is in place, I will not recognize any Member of this Subcommittee to participate in person in any Subcommittee meeting or hearing unless the Member is wearing a mask and strictly adheres to the Attending Physician’s guidance," Clyburn said in a letter to Scalise. The letter further recommends members participate remotely if they insist on not wearing masks.
The letter comes after a monthslong debate in Congress where Republicans have repeatedly disregarded recommendations and then a requirement from Capitol health experts to wear face coverings. The disagreement on the topic came to a head at the end of a Friday hearing when Clyburn reminded his Republican colleagues they were in violation of a mandate handed down by the attending physician, even as disposable masks were stationed outside the hearing room for members to use.
“For the United States House of Representatives meetings, in a limited and closed space such as a committee hearing room for greater than 15 minutes face coverings are required,” Clyburn said, reading the Capitol health official’s order. “And we’re not going to have another meeting in a confined space if we’re not going to abide by this. I will stay in the safety of my home as I would ask all you to do.”
Scalise responded to Clyburn by saying members of the House are following guidelines on how to social distance just fine, suggesting mask-wearing is an additional precautionary measure.
“I understand doctors might look at things differently and want to give even extra precautions, but the precautions that have been out there are clearly being followed,” Scalise said, arguing social distancing and disinfecting surfaces meet certain health official guidelines.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, also chimed in to note that dozens of members of Congress have quarantined because they’ve either tested positive or come into contact with others who have, even pointing to the death of Rep. Maxine Waters' sister who died from the coronavirus.
“Why is it some kind of macho thing, like, ‘if I don’t wear a mask, I’m tough’? If you want to be tough, go spend the day with the nurses and doctors in the hospitals,” Raskin told members during the committee hearing Friday morning.
Republican Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee said he would comply should Clyburn require subcommittee members to wear masks meetings.
At least 55 members of Congress have quarantined, tested positive, or came in contact with someone with COVID-19, according to a Gov.Track analysis. Since March, most Republicans in the House have refused to wear masks on the House floor, sometimes throughout hours of debate and votes.
The debate mirrors the national divide on the topic. At a Friday press conference on the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence deferred to freedom of speech and the right to assemble when a reporter asked whether the Trump campaign is contributing to increased cases of coronavirus by holding large indoor rallies for supporters who do not social distance or wear masks.
Pence reversed course on Sunday at a press conference in Texas where he encouraged everyone to wear masks if they cannot social distance.
The refusal to wear masks is part of a broader response from some conservatives who argue assembling with or without masks is part of their constitutional right. Most supporters attending President Donald Trump’s first indoor rally since the coronavirus did not wear masks even while both rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Phoenix were held in states that are seeing an increase in cases.
At least two dozen states have experienced an uptick in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, including Florida, the new host of this year’s Republican National Convention after a Democratic lawmaker from North Carolina expressed concerns about holding the event in his state amid the pandemic.
This story was updated to reflect a new draft of Clyburn's letter to Scalise. In the previous draft, Clyburn wrote that he would not "permit" members to participate in hearings without masks. In the final draft, he wrote that he will not "recognize" members to participate.