Congress restores strict health protocols during omicron-fueled surge

COVID-19 is once again surging among members of Congress, upending a sense of normalcy that had been slowly returning to the Capitol in recent months.

More than half a dozen House members have tested positive for the virus since Friday alone amid the omicron-fueled spike in cases nationwide.

And that comes after Congress has been mostly out of session over the past few weeks.
Now, lawmakers and congressional staff face the anxiety-filled challenge of hundreds of people congregating together for legislative business while dodging an unprecedented surge of COVID-19.

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As the House returns to session this week for the first time since mid-December, Democratic leaders will restore social distancing protocols for floor votes and are urging everyone to upgrade their masks to the more protective KN95s or N95s instead of cloth or surgical masks.

“I have heard from many members expressing concerns about the surge in COVID-19 cases relating to the highly infectious omicron variant,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi says she will run for reelection in 2022 Biden to meet with CEOs to discuss Build Back Better agenda Hoyer says 'significant' version of Build Back Better will pass this year MORE (D-Md.) wrote in a message to lawmakers announcing that the number of floor votes would be more limited and held open for longer times.

Additional floor schedule notices from Hoyer’s office on Monday stated that lawmakers are “further advised to exit the House floor immediately after voting” and “strongly discouraged from congregating on the House floor and in the surrounding areas during votes.”

The Capitol physician’s office has also relocated its COVID-19 testing site to a larger space to accommodate increased demand.

The resumption of COVID-19 mitigation practices in the Capitol comes after lawmakers had grown more comfortable in recent months with gathering on the House floor for hours at a time and resuming closed-door strategy meetings in person.

But reimposing strict safety protocols to prevent spread of the omicron variant is more of a challenge, as many Republicans have resisted wearing masks in recent months.

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The House side of the Capitol complex has had a mask requirement since July 2020, as a result of numerous House Republicans refusing to wear masks. Democrats further instituted fines — starting at $500 for the first offense and $2,500 for subsequent offenses — in January 2021 to enforce compliance after several Republicans declined to wear masks while lawmakers were crowded in a secure space during the attack on the Capitol.

All but a handful of Republicans have complied with the mask mandate on the House floor to avoid getting stuck with the hefty fines.

But the fines only apply to the House chamber, not the surrounding hallways in the Capitol or nearby office buildings. Many House GOP lawmakers and their staff have pointedly ignored the mask mandate everywhere else in the Capitol complex where they don’t face the threat of fines, despite large signs on the walls directing everyone to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Indeed, some House GOP lawmakers are refusing to wear masks as a badge of honor.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.) told Newsmax, the far-right television outlet, last week that she has racked up nearly $90,000 in mask fines. Twitter has permanently banned Greene’s personal account for violating COVID-19 misinformation policies with tweets falsely claiming that vaccines were ineffective and the virus largely wasn’t dangerous.

“I’m just trying to fight the fight for the people who are against it,” Greene told Newsmax.
Another far-right House Republican from Georgia, Rep. Andrew Clyde, has similarly been fined at least $58,000 after the House sergeant-at-arms documented 24 violations of the House mask requirement since September.

Several other Republicans have also been fined at least once: Reps. Lauren BoebertLauren BoebertMask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House Boebert asked Jewish visitors to Capitol if they were doing 'reconnaissance': report GOP Reps. Greene, Clyde accrue nearly 0K in combined mask fines MORE (Colo.), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa), Bob Good (Va.), Mary Miller (Ill.), Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoySupreme Court declines GOP challenge against House proxy voting Mask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House GOP lawmakers seek answers from FDA on prenatal testing accuracy following New York Times report MORE (Texas), Ralph NormanRalph Warren NormanMask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House Reps. Massie, Grijalva test positive for COVID-19 GOP Reps. Greene, Clyde accrue nearly 0K in combined mask fines MORE (S.C.), Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastMask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House GOP Reps. Greene, Clyde accrue nearly 0K in combined mask fines Top House Democrat pushes for 'isolation boxes' for maskless lawmakers MORE (Fla.), Beth Van Duyne (Texas) and Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieNew Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case Mask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House Overnight Health Care — Another Texas abortion setback MORE (Ky.).
The fines are deducted directly from lawmakers’ paychecks and cannot be paid for with campaign or congressional office budget funds.

Despite the threat of the omicron variant, Senate Republicans largely continued not to wear masks while the upper chamber was in session last week. Unlike the House, the Senate has never had a mask requirement in its chamber or surrounding office buildings.

Republicans also still held their party caucus luncheons in person, albeit in a larger room in the Russell Senate Office Building so they could space out more. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, resumed holding caucus meetings virtually.

House Democrats still plan to meet this week in a hybrid format, with some members attending Tuesday’s caucus meeting in person in the Capitol basement and others participating virtually.

At least 21 House members and four senators have tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-December despite being vaccinated. That includes eight House members who have announced their diagnoses since Friday.

Overall, there have been at least 36 breakthrough cases among House members and eight among senators since the summer. Four additional House Republicans have revealed they got COVID-19 in recent months, but it’s not clear whether they were vaccinated.

With the virus spreading left and right among lawmakers — literally and figuratively — and others limiting travel, members of both parties are expected to widely embrace proxy voting this week.

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All but one Republican opposed establishing proxy voting in May 2020, but many have since warmed to it as they have had to stay home due to getting COVID-19 or embraced it as a scheduling convenience.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyPress: Newt says lock 'em up – for doing their job!  The Hill's Morning Report - Biden, NATO eye 'all scenarios' with Russia On The Money — Support for new COVID-19 relief grows MORE (R-Calif.), however, reiterated during a lengthy floor speech in November that proxy voting would be eliminated if Republicans take control of the chamber next year.

“I have spent a lot of time thinking about the next Congress. How do we heal this place? If you are all thinking of running again, for those who win, no more proxy voting. You are going to have to show up to work,” McCarthy said.

But numerous Republicans who tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days made a point of noting that they plan to vote by proxy while recovering from the virus. That included Reps. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Schumer tees up doomed election reform vote Democrats eye prime pickup chance in Katko retirement Clyburn says he's worried about losing House, 'losing this democracy' MORE (N.Y.) and Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulNew Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case Fiscal conservatives should support postal reform  MORE (Texas), who serve as the top Republicans on the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees, respectively.

“I am fully vaccinated and boosted, and am thankfully experiencing only mild symptoms. I will be voting by proxy in Washington this week and working from home as I recover. My constituent service team remains available and ready to serve,” Katko tweeted Monday.

Jordain Carney contributed.