Pandemic casts long shadow over Biden’s State of the Union
President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday risks becoming an illustration of the divisions over the COVID-19 pandemic after nearly two full years of restrictions.
Outside the Capitol where Biden will speak, law enforcement is preparing for the possibility of disruptive trucker convoys arriving in Washington after truckers shut down part of Canada’s capital for weeks to protest COVID-19 mandates.
The trucker protest has become a cause célèbre for conservatives opposed to coronavirus restrictions, with many openly cheering and supporting the Ottawa demonstration.
And inside, at least for now, the plan is for lawmakers to wear masks and stay spaced apart, with no invited guests watching from the gallery, signs that the pandemic still looms large despite the recent efforts among even blue state governors to lift mask mandates.
The speech comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention significantly eased its mask recommendations for most of the country as the omicron-driven wave of COVID-19 subsides.
Under the new recommendations, which put more emphasis on hospitalization rates than case numbers, the District of Columbia now qualifies as having a “low” community level of COVID-19 where “people may choose to mask at any time” rather than being urged to do so.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appeared to suggest at an event in San Francisco on Thursday, a day before the CDC issued its new guidance, that the State of the Union protocols might be more “relaxed.”
“We have the State of the Union address by the president, which we’re very excited about. And hopefully, we’ll be able to do it in a more relaxed COVID way, but we don’t know. We’ll just hear from the Capitol physician about that,” Pelosi said.
But Capitol officials are currently planning numerous strict health protocols for the State of the Union.
Everyone in the House chamber will have to present a negative COVID-19 test taken a day ahead of time and wear a KN95 or N95 mask. Vaccinations are “strongly recommended,” but not required.
An advisory from the House sergeant-at-arms warned that “failure to follow guidelines or removal of the mask in the House chamber will result in the attendee’s removal from the event and/or fines.”
But the threat of fines hasn’t deterred several House Republicans from refusing to wear masks during the pandemic. And it’s possible those Republicans will still show up for Biden’s speech.
Georgia Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde have both racked up tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of fines — which start at $500 for the first offense and rise to $2,500 for subsequent offenses — for repeatedly defying the House chamber’s mask requirement in the past year.
House Democrats enacted the fines last year to enforce the requirement after many were infuriated by several Republicans who declined to wear masks while lawmakers were crowded in a secure room during the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Clyde has been fined at least $68,000 as of mid-January, according to the House Ethics Committee.
Greene, meanwhile, said that she’s accumulated more than $100,000 in mask fines. And Greene — whose personal Twitter account was permanently suspended by the social media platform for repeatedly violating its COVID-19 misinformation rules — has openly said she is not vaccinated.
“[N]o need to start wearing a mask now,” Greene tweeted in response to the announcement of mask and testing protocols for the State of the Union.
A spokesperson for Clyde said Friday that he hadn’t yet decided whether to attend the State of the Union. Greene’s office, meanwhile, did not respond when asked if she planned to go.
Nine other House Republicans have also been fined at least once for violating the House floor mask mandate: Reps. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa), Bob Good (Va.), Mary Miller (Ill.), Chip Roy (Texas), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Brian Mast (Fla.), Beth Van Duyne (Texas) and Thomas Massie (Ky.).
But they have generally not been repeat offenders like Greene or Clyde. The only other Republican to have faced fines more than once was Miller-Meeks, who has been fined twice.
Attendance at the annual address won’t be as limited as last year, when even some lawmakers didn’t have the chance to go while COVID-19 vaccinations were still being rolled out. Only about 200 people attended Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last April, and they all had to show proof of full vaccination or a negative coronavirus test within the prior 48 hours.
This year, all members of Congress can attend the speech — but they can’t bring guests. Instead, lawmakers will be spaced out on the House floor and in the gallery above.
Capitol officials may also enact additional security measures outside the building in anticipation of trucker convoys that are planning protests next week around the same time as the State of the Union.
The Capitol Police said that erecting a temporary fence around the Capitol perimeter — as it did after the Jan. 6 attack – remains an option in its State of the Union security discussions.
In addition, the Pentagon has approved the deployment of 700 National Guard troops to the nation’s capital to assist with traffic control as part of preparations for the potential trucker convoy protests.
Some Republicans sympathetic to protests over COVID-19 mandates decried the possibility for a fence around the Capitol in anticipation of the convoy.
“While we are supportive of protecting our institutions, denying the American people their right to access our nation’s most public and treasured buildings is an abhorrent decision,” a group of 18 GOP members wrote in a letter to Pelosi this week.
Law enforcement is making clear it’s not taking any chances after the truckers’ protest in Canada paralyzed traffic in Ottawa and shut down the nation’s busiest border crossing with the U.S.
It remains to be seen whether any of the planned trucker protests for the Washington area in the coming days will materialize into anything disruptive.
A Pennsylvania man leading a truck convoy into Washington on Wednesday told a D.C.-area Fox affiliate last weekend that they would “shut down” the Beltway like a “giant boa constrictor.”
In the end, the convoy fizzled to only a handful of trucks.
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