For one congressional staffer waiting for the elevator, enough was enough.
He almost always wears a mask at work. His closest colleagues do too. But everywhere the Democrat looked this month, bare faces rushed by, ignoring the signs: “Use of face covering is required.”
“Thank you for your cooperation and understanding,” add the signs, posted around the House side of the Capitol.
As he boarded one of the hundreds of elevators in the sprawling complex, his frustration came to a head. He knew he wasn’t going to change any minds, but he had to say something. So he turned and confronted a maskless fellow staffer.
“I’m fully vaccinated, are you not?” the man shot back, tension crackling in the tiny space. The exchange was over almost as quickly as it began. The elevator doors opened, and both went about their days.
Scenes like this are playing out all around the Capitol this fall, as some staffers say they feel trapped in a neverending proxy war, squabbling over masks as larger partisan tensions rage in Congress. Nineteen months into the pandemic, masks are still so much more than simple pieces of fabric — and that’s especially true when you work on Capitol Hill, in the heart of political Washington.
“We’re in a very hard workplace, and it’s discouraging to see someone blatantly disregarding the rules,” says the Democrat who rode the elevator, asking not to be named to protect his job as a communications staffer for a House member.
“It literally feels like going into work is going into a battle,” says another House Democratic staffer, who is fed up and applying for other jobs. He no longer feels safe on the Hill after a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol at the beginning of the year, and the continued tension over masking has made the climate even worse for him.
“It’s not the only factor, but it’s a factor,” he says.
You can find mask tension anywhere in America. “Have you flown recently?” asks a Republican House staffer dryly, pointing to the brawls that have disrupted air travel ever since the Transportation Security Administration mandated face coverings.
He wears a mask sometimes, but not all the time. When people confront him at work, it reminds him of those awkward plane rides. A stranger yelled at him in the hallway this month for carrying his mask in his hand.
“I told him to have a nice day,” says the GOP staffer, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I didn’t really know what to say.”
Still, there’s an extra layer of meaning for congressional staffers, who often feel pressure to act as carbon copies of their lawmaker bosses. Masking has joined other ways of signaling party belonging through clothing, like putting on a red or blue tie. Many aides describe an instant assumption that pops into their minds: If they see someone without a mask, that person probably works for a Republican. “It’s pretty clear when you’re walking the hallways who works for whom,” says the elevator-riding Democrat.
The job-seeking Democrat agrees, calling masks a team jersey. “I think it comes from the top,” he says. “We have a lot of GOP members who have been champions for the anti-vax message and the anti-mask message.”
At least five members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of September, and workers in the complex have felt the continuing effects of the pandemic too, with a Capitol Police officer hospitalized in the intensive care unit. Yet even as the Hill enters a busy fall period that will keep hallways full, mask-wearing is spotty.
“Seeing that has kind of rekindled this tension, like we’re not all playing by the same rules,” the Democratic staffer says. “It got me even doubting — is this a rule?”
Wearing masks is indeed the rule on the House side of the Capitol, though it’s hardly that simple. Exacerbating everything is the disjointed nature of the workplace that is Congress, which can prove confusing even for insiders.
“I don’t think anybody wants to wear a mask. But I think where you really lose people is that somehow we have less risk of getting COVID by walking to the Senate side,” says Will Kiley, communications director for Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.
Masks are mandatory for people gathering in the House chamber and office buildings, regardless of vaccination status, but only strongly encouraged in the Senate — a situation that illustrates the piecemeal nature of the legislative branch.
The Office of the Attending Physician outlined the stricter policies in a July memo, as the delta variant fueled new coronavirus concerns and ruined an early summer reprieve. “To be clear, for meetings in an enclosed U.S. House of Representatives-controlled space, masks are REQUIRED,” the memo said.
Republicans seized on that inconsistency, with House lawmakers staging a walk to the Senate side in protest of the new rule.
“We’re going to go over there for a taste of freedom,” GOP Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie said as he walked with other members of his party.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi told House members to remember that the sergeant-at-arms is authorized and directed to fine them for violations of the mask rule. But the authorizing resolution says nothing about staffers.
Norms and expectations for employees can vary widely behind the closed doors of the complex, since the House is composed of hundreds of different lawmakers’ offices. Those differences then emerge into the hallways, which can turn them into a battleground.
The posters on the House side of the Capitol are a recent addition, popping up the week of Sept. 20 as people returned from summer recess. A cartoonish face wears a bright green mask, reinforcing the all-caps reminder. Workers from the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer hung the posters on the walls in “support for the guidance from the Office of Attending Physician’s regarding mask wearing,” a CAO spokesman said. “If the guidance changes, the signs will be removed.”
Democratic staffer Sharon Eliza Nichols hopes people will take the message to heart. “I’m vaccinated and boosted, but I’m a leukemia survivor and will always be immunocompromised to some extent,” says Nichols, a communications director. “If I got [COVID-19], I’d be more likely than most people my age to spiral quickly.”
For now, she’s learned to avoid high-conflict areas, like the more than 300 elevators in the complex that ferry thousands of employees to meetings and votes. (The House staff gym is another place where anger can flare, according to other aides.) Partisan tension is the rule on Capitol Hill, more enduring than any mask mandate, but she just wants to do her job.
“Luckily I feel trusted enough here to be able to say, ‘I’ll be late because I had to go find the stairs after I saw the elevator full of coughing people without masks,’” Nichols says. “I know a lot of people aren’t as secure.”