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No longer on the State of the Union guest list: mandatory masks

Capitol physician drops mask mandate, following CDC

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seen here in November, has relied on the Office of the Attending Physician as masking guidance has evolved in the House.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seen here in November, has relied on the Office of the Attending Physician as masking guidance has evolved in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Mask-wearing is no longer required on the House side of the Capitol, and won’t be mandatory at Tuesday’s State of the Union address, according to the Office of the Attending Physician.

“Individuals may choose to mask at any time, but it is no longer a requirement,” a letter sent to House staff Sunday night stated. 

The OAP move mirrors a Friday announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said masks could come off in most areas of the country. The Washington area is currently at a low risk level for COVID-19, according to a new metric unveiled by the CDC. 

If people have symptoms or test positive, or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, a mask should still be worn at the Capitol, the OAP said. People should take other precautions, such as continuing to screen daily for symptoms before coming in to work and getting vaccinated.

Moving to make masks optional seemed far off in January, during the height of the wave when the omicron variant of the coronavirus sent caseloads skyrocketing. The OAP said in January that “dozens” in the congressional community were testing positive for COVID-19 each day as the rate of infection jumped from 1 percent to 13 percent. 

Now the positivity rate of those being tested at the Capitol Visitor Center has decreased to a seven-day average of 2.7 percent — lower than the rate in Washington of 4.7 percent, the OAP said. 

Staffers walk through the basement of the Capitol, where a “face covering is required” sign still hung on Monday morning. The Office of the Attending Physician said Sunday that masking is now optional. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Among those who tested positive, 89 percent were vaccinated and 63 percent were symptomatic. The omicron variants, both BA.1 and BA.2, are still responsible for most cases at the Capitol.

The House will cease distribution of at-home tests on March 7 and will resume distribution if case levels rise, the OAP said. But the testing center at the Capitol Visitor Center will remain open and available for walk-in testing.

Masking on the House floor became a battleground last year for some lawmakers, like Georgia GOP Reps. Andrew Clyde and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who refused to wear masks and had tens of thousands of dollars in fines deducted from their paychecks. 

The Senate, unlike the House, never enforced a formal mask requirement.

In another sign of returning normalcy, the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer announced longer hours for some food service providers in the Capitol and said a new pop-up offering from Mission BBQ will open in the Rayburn cafeteria on Wednesdays when the House is in session.

Nearly two years since the pandemic began, the U.S. is now in a new era where COVID-19 will likely be treated more like the seasonal flu and less like the virulent killer that has taken the lives of nearly 1 million Americans.  

“The coronavirus pandemic has not ended, but moved into a different phase that reflects vaccine and post recovery immunity, availability of effective prevention and therapeutic drug strategies and decreased severity of disease for most people,” the OAP letter said.

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