When the House returns to Washington next week, vaccinated members will have the choice to go mask-free in the House chamber for the first time since mask rules were implemented last spring, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But unvaccinated lawmakers and staff will still be required to wear a mask in the chamber and throughout the House side of the Capitol.
According to a senior Democratic aide, the Capitol complex is at a vaccination rate of 85 percent, a benchmark that led to the announcement of this change Friday.
The Office of the Attending Physician issued the update in an 18-page memo on operations guidelines for the pandemic Friday afternoon, ahead of the House’s return on Monday.
“The guideline document preserves the requirement for mask wear and social distance separations for individuals who are not fully vaccinated, or vaccine indeterminate,” reads the memo.
Before the recess, Republicans balked at the continued mask mandate on the House floor when the requirement was lifted in most other areas of the Capitol in accordance with CDC guidance for vaccinated individuals. Some racked up fines for revolting against the mask requirement and removing their masks in defiance of the rule.
GOP Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Chip Roy of Texas, Bob Good of Virginia, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Mary Miller of Illinois were given first-offense warnings on the mask rule, a Capitol official said. The House sergeant-at-arms staff is in charge of the fines system.
GOP Reps. Brian Mast of Florida, Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa and Beth Van Duyne of Texas were slapped with $500 fines for violating the rule twice. Some of the anti-mask members have also been vocal about refusing the high-efficacy COVID-19 vaccine, including Greene.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy offered a privileged resolution last month that would have lifted the mask mandate in the chamber. Members voted 218-210 along party lines to table it.
Proxy voting precipice
Proxy voting in the House could come to an end on July 3, when the latest extension of the period allowing for proxy votes is set to expire.
The House first began proxy voting in May 2020 after a historic, but temporary, rules change. The initial 45-day period to allow for proxy voting has been extended since then, based on correspondence from the House sergeant-at-arms and the Capitol’s attending physician on the status of the public health emergency.
With 85 percent vaccination on the Capitol campus, it seems likely that the update from the health and security chiefs could be less dire and allow for the expiration of the proxy voting period.
The same resolution that changed the rules to allow for proxy voting also allowed House committees to hold virtual hearings, markups and depositions using software platforms certified by the chief administrative officer, who is in charge of cybersecurity and technology in the House.
The House has shifted its schedule significantly during the pandemic to implement whole weeks of committee business without floor action, which allowed members to participate virtually in committees from their districts. Committee-focused weeks remain on the schedule for July, September and October.
Niels Lesniewski and Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.