Senate

Democrats look for offramp from masking in public

Democratic lawmakers are distancing themselves from the strong pro-mask stance they took for most of the pandemic, which is becoming more and more of a political liability at a time when many Americans are reaching their limits of COVID-19 fatigue. 

Democrats are being battered by poll after poll showing that President Biden’s approval rating is hovering around 40 percent, and lawmakers say COVID-19 fatigue is a major factor behind why so many voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. 

Hardly any Democratic senators wore their masks on the House floor Tuesday night when the nation tuned in to watch Biden’s first State of the Union address, one of the biggest prime-time political events before November’s midterm elections.  

Brian Monahan, the Capitol’s attending physician, announced in a memo circulated before the State of the Union address that people would no longer be required to wear masks in the House chamber or elsewhere around the Capitol complex. 

He advised they were optional, and a number of Senate Democrats who for months have always worn their masks around the Capitol hallways took them off for Biden’s speech, beaming their pleasure at the president’s words unencumbered, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.).  

Lawmakers viewed the State of the Union as a low-risk event because all attendees were required to receive a negative COVID-19 test before attending. But at least six legislators, including Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), announced they had tested positive, showing that the virus is still swirling about Congress.   

Fewer and fewer Democrats are wearing their masks in the halls of Congress, joining Republican colleagues who ditched masks last year after vaccines were widely available to the public.   

When Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) met with Biden’s Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson in the historic Mansfield Room for a photo-op just off the Senate floor, neither wore a mask — even though many of the reporters and photographers in the room, though not all, were wearing facial coverings.  

Schumer after the meeting declared that the nation under Democratic leadership had pretty much defeated COVID-19.

“As the president said, Democrats have done a … very good job at getting us out of the COVID mess and we’re about to turn the corner,” he said.  

“I hope our Republican colleagues will join us in getting some kinds of new funding to keep us normal. God forbid another variant comes along,” he added.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who stopped wearing a mask in the Capitol this week, said she and her colleagues recently discussed easing up on wearing masks, but she said the decision was driven by the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

“We have discussed it and now based on the science, it’s really recommended to be an individual decision,” she said. “Based on what Monahan said, based on D.C. lifting [its mask mandate], it’s become something that’s more of an individual decision.”

“I do have to say it’s a little weird,” she said, noting that Wednesday was only the second day she had walked the Capitol’s hallways without a mask since the pandemic hit Washington two years ago.

While the CDC, as of Feb. 25, recommends that a mask be worn based on personal preference in a low-risk environment, it recommends wearing masks in medium-risk indoor environments, especially when coming into contact with people at higher risk of severe infection.  

Several members of the Senate are in their 80s and could be seen as in a higher health-risk category.  

The guidance provided by the District of Columbia is also mixed.  

Starting March 1, D.C.’s city government stopped requiring masks at restaurants, bars, sports venues, gyms and grocery stores. But city officials still require masks at libraries, nursing homes, correctional facilities, on public transit and at government facilities where employees have direct interaction with the public.  

Democrats won control of the White House and Senate in the 2020 elections after embracing masks and other COVID-19-prevention protocols as a sign they were taking the pandemic more seriously than former President Trump, who repeatedly refused to wear a mask in public.  

But now there are myriad signs that Americans are growing sick of masks and other restrictions.  

Democratic governors last month led a charge to ease mask requirements and now Democratic officeholders in Washington are following suit.  

Being pro-mask is a mixed bag politically, as Republicans are making inroads with swing voters by lumping mandatory masking policies with COVID-19-related school closures and urging for a faster return to pre-pandemic normalcy.   

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), an adviser to the Senate Republican leadership, said mask requirements are starting to hurt Democrats politically.  

“Biden cured COVID-19, pandemic’s over,” Cornyn quipped.  

“He made it political in his campaign against Trump, and he’s paying the price for that,” he said of Biden’s prominent use of masks during the 2020 presidential campaign.  

“It’s schools and it’s education and it’s parents’ roles in their kids’ education. All that stuff has flowed from that [mask] controversy, and I think they’re paying a political price for it now,” he said.  

After a Monmouth University poll showed that 70 percent of Americans nationwide think COVID-19 is here to stay and “we just need to get on with our lives,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) announced his state would lift its school mask mandate on March 7.  

“We have to learn to live with COVID,” he said last month.  

Several Democratic senators on Wednesday bristled at the suggestion that they’re shedding their masks to avoid bad political optics.  

“I don’t think politics should have anything to do with it. And I’ve felt that strongly and it’s all about science, about keeping people safe. It’s about those that are vulnerable. It’s about children that don’t have the opportunity to get vaccines. It’s not a political issue and it never should have been,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who faces a toss-up reelection race this year. She was not wearing a mask.  

The divide between Democratic and Republican lawmakers over wearing masks and other COVID-19-prevention protocols has been stark for much of the pandemic.  

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic, was never spotted wearing a mask on Capitol Hill and claimed last year that they didn’t work, citing a peer-reviewed study from Denmark.  

Most Senate Democrats wore masks in public throughout the pandemic, even after getting vaccinated when the omicron variant caused a new surge of infections across the country.  

Brown, the chairman of the Banking Committee, memorably got into a heated spat with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) in November 2020 because his GOP colleague wasn’t wearing a mask while presiding over the Senate floor.  

Sullivan got hot under the collar when Brown asked him to “please wear a mask as he speaks.” 

“I don’t wear a mask when I’m speaking, like most senators. I don’t need your instruction,” he shot back.  

Tags Alex Padilla Brian Schatz Catherine Cortez Masto Charles Schumer Dan Sullivan Debbie Stabenow Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Jeff Merkley Joe Biden John Cornyn Ketanji Brown Jackson Phil Murphy Rand Paul Ron Wyden Sheldon Whitehouse Sherrod Brown

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