Mask confusion enters Congress again as COVID-19 cases tick up


We may know more about COVID-19 and the state of the pandemic when the House of Representatives returns to session Tuesday.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise around the nation as Americans returned from summer vacation and kids went back to school.

So, COVID cases are increasing.

And, frankly, Congress is a lot like the rest of America. As it is said, we have representative government.

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A student wears a mask and face shield in a 4th grade class during the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School. (Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Summer vacation is over and “school” is back in session.

Granted, the Senate returned last week after nearly six weeks of recess. But the Senate is a body of only 100 people. The House has 435. And when the House is in session, the Capitol hums with a flurry of activity. Not only are there more lawmakers, but scores of additional aides, interns, visitors, lobbyists and reporters.

Here’s an observation. During the darkest days of the pandemic, COVID cases among lawmakers always seemed to shoot up right after a recess. You can draw your own hypothesis. Lawmakers visiting with lots of people at town halls and functions in their districts, then boarding planes and returning to Washington.

As former Senator and Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., characterized it in the spring of 2020, Congress has the potential to become “an efficient, virus-spreading machine.”

So, with cases climbing nationally and Congress returning, see where we stand in a week or so on Capitol Hill. It’s an unofficial measuring stick.

During the darkest days of the pandemic, lawmaker COVID cases always seemed to shoot up right after a recess. (iStock)

The rise in COVID cases and concern over masks spurred action by two Republican senators in recent days.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., tried to get the Senate to approve, on the spot, a measure that would exempt teenage, high school Senate pages from mask or vaccine requirements. Paul asked the Senate to approve his measure via unanimous consent, which means the Senate adopts the plan so long as none of the 100 senators object. All it takes is one. And Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., objected, blocking Paul’s gambit.

“We should get away from any kind of mandates, not only with masks but with mandatory vaccines for kids,” Paul said on FOX Business. “They don’t work. They didn’t control transmission. They didn’t lower the transmission among people.”

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Paul’s maneuver came as an elementary school in suburban Montgomery Country, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., imposed a mask mandate after a COVID outbreak there. 

Sen. Rand Paul said, “We should get away from any kind of mandates, not only with masks but with mandatory vaccines for kids.” (Joe Raedle)

Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, seized on recent, private reintroductions of mask mandates. In a Senate floor speech, Vance noted that Lionsgate now required masks on its film sets. Kaiser Permanente and Morris Brown College in Atlanta also have mask mandates.

Like Paul, Vance expressed concern about young people.

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“(Masks) can actively cause harm,” said Vance. “We know that a generation of school children have suffered significant speech and developmental disabilities because this country panicked.”

Vance went on to say that the “seasonal uptick of COVID” isn’t “something to worry about. I don’t like this fact, but COVID is here to stay. Seasonal upticks in a respiratory virus are exactly to be expected.”

It may be unclear at what levels COVID could return. But Vance believes mask requirements are just over the horizon. 

“This is coming back unless we stop it from happening,” said Vance.

Sen. Vance believes schoolchildren should not be required to wear masks. (Getty Images)

Not the pandemic. But masks.

So Vance crafted a bill to bar masks in airports and on flights and in schools.

“It says that, for the next 15 months, the government can’t force you to wear a mask on planes, on public transit or in public schools. Taxpayer dollars cannot be used to force and enforce a mandate against our people,” Vance said on the Senate floor.

Vance titled his bill “The Freedom to Breathe Act.” He then asked unanimous consent on the floor for the Senate to call up the bill and pass it on the spot.

Again, all it takes is one objection. And Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., blocked Vance.

“COVID is coming back. It’s on the rise again. This provision would violate a long-held belief in the Republican Party that states and localities should not be told what to do by a federal government removed from the realities that they are seeing on the grounds in their neighborhoods,” Markey responded.

“What I would like is for the freedom of a schoolchild to not be thrown out of a classroom because he doesn’t want to wear a mask,” countered Vance.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said, “COVID is coming back.” (J. Scott Applewhite)

Vance noted he’s the father of three children under the age of 7.

“They need us to not be Chicken Little about every single respiratory pandemic and problem that confronts this country. We are going to have people who get sick from viruses,” said Vance.

Right now, there’s no federal mask mandate on the table.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told colleague Aishah Hasnie a mask requirement should hinge “on the lethality of COVID.”

Whitehouse said that “if hundreds of thousands of people are dying, the government response is a little bit different than if it’s more or less an unpleasant day or two of flu symptoms.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he opposed mask mandates.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., was unsure.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he opposed mask mandates. (Kent Nishimura)

“We’ve got to look at the circumstances on the ground and see what’s happening with any renewal of a pandemic and how it’s affecting people,” said Shaheen.

Shaheen was also unsure on the efficacy of masks.

“They work sometimes. Sometimes they don’t,” she said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra noted that, despite the increase in cases, “we’re nowhere near where we were before.”

However, Becerra said, “We will make sure that if you need a mask, that the supply of PPE will be there for you.” 

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, is a doctor and chairs the special House COVID panel investigating the origins of the pandemic. During an appearance on Fox, Wenstrup said Americans grew tired of “politicians telling you what you have to do.” 

Wenstrup added that there’s “confusion” among people, and people are “fed up” with health and safety requirements.

“Americans love freedom, and they love self-determination,” said Wenstrup.

Children with face masks at school after a COVID-19 quarantine and lockdown. (iStock)

While cases may be up, they’re not stressing the American health care system like they were a few years ago. And most health officials aren’t seriously considering mask mandates. The last mask mandates hit as the omicron wave swelled nationwide nearly two years ago. 

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So Congress reconvening may give us some insight into the state of the pandemic. 

The percentage of people voluntarily wearing masks around the Capitol is higher now than it was a few months ago. And one thing is for certain. There are no plans to impose any sort of mask mandate for those who work at the Capitol.



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