Rep. Matt Gaetz takes his mask off to sip a beverage in the hearing room.
Rep. Matt Gaetz takes his mask off to sip a beverage in the hearing room.

Kayla Epstein/Business Insider

  • Tensions ran high between Republican and Democratic members of the House on Wednesday after GOP Rep. Louis Gohmert, who refused for months to wear a face mask, tested positive for the coronavirus. 

  • Virtually all lawmakers present at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing followed coronavirus safety precautions by wearing a face mask and remaining six feet apart from one another. 

  • But Democrats were quick to call out their Republican colleagues who haven’t embraced mask-wearing. And at one point, Rep. Jamie Raskin shouted over GOP Rep. Jim Jordan to put his mask back on when he interrupted a colleague. 

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

WASHINGTON, DC—The House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee was a little on edge Wednesday.

It wasn’t nerves about questioning some of the most powerful businessmen on Earth during the day’s hearing. It was about face masks.

Earlier on Wednesday, Republican Rep. Louis Gohmert revealed he’d tested positive for the coronavirus. The conservative Texan regularly eschewed masks, reportedly demanded his staff did the same, and suggested on Wednesday that he might have been infected while wearing a mask.

His diagnosis has reignited the debate around how Congress should protect itself during the pandemic and led to a new emphasis from leadership on wearing protective face coverings. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would require all members to wear a mask on the House floor, Politico reported.

On Tuesday, Gohmert attended a five-hour House Judiciary hearing featuring Attorney General William Barr, potentially exposing Barr and several House colleagues to Covid-19. Gohmert’s recklessness angered his fellow Judiciary members.

“It’s absolutely outrageous. This is a simple thing, wear a mask,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington State, told Insider on Tuesday. “It’s a rule we’ve put in place, it’s based on the Capitol physician’s guidance.”

“If it was just about you that would be one thing, but it’s not — it’s about the virus spreading to other people,” she went on. “And we’re all now in this position where we’re at risk, our families are at risk, our staff is at risk. It’s really outrageous.”

As Democratic Rep. David Cicilline initiated Wednesday’s hearing with the chief executives of Amazon, Facebook, and Google, he made it clear he expected lawmakers to wear masks at all times unless they were designated to speak. And all the lawmakers appeared to take the directive seriously.

Even Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who went mostly mask-less on Tuesday, wore a face covering. But when Jordan interrupted a Democratic colleague’s allotted speaking time, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin shouted over him to put his mask back on.

“Put your mask on! Put your mask on!” Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, yelled at Jordan, an Ohio Republican.

Raskin and other Democrats had already condemned Jordan for regularly refusing to wear a mask in committee. 

“We need to follow as many of the precautions as we possibly can,” Rep. Lucy McBath, a Georgia Democrat who wore a “Good Trouble” mask in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis on Tuesday, told Insider.

Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas has refused to wear masks for months.
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas has refused to wear masks for months.

Leah Millis/Reuters

‘Wear a mask. Wear a damn mask’

For months, many Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, have dismissed or simply rejected masks, despite significant evidence that the safety precaution dramatically reduces the spread of the coronavirus. Recent polling has found that Americans’ adherence to local mask-wearing orders and federal recommendations vary dramatically based on party affiliation. While 61% of Democrats said they always wear a mask outside their home, just 24% of Republicans said the same in a July Gallup poll. 

While Trump recently appeared to embrace mask-wearing, calling the practice “patriotic,” he’s since promoted voices online that argue against face coverings. 

Gohmert made a point of not wearing a mask and required his staffers to work from his office, making his contraction of the virus particularly troubling.

When Jayapal was asked if there was a divide in how Republicans and Democrats approached masks, she said, “There’s no science divide.”

“The science is clear,” she said. “Wear a mask. Wear a damn mask.”

Congress has for months struggled to figure out how to both keep lawmakers and staffers safe while allowing them to do their jobs.

Members can now appear virtually at hearings, many staffers work from home, and hearing rooms and hallways are stocked with protective equipment and hand sanitizer. But the system isn’t foolproof, particularly when some lawmakers continue to violate the social distancing and mask-wearing recommendations. 

After the news of Gohmert’s diagnosis broke, Politico’s afternoon “Playbook” argued the Capitol needs testing protocols similar to the temperature checks and frequent COVID-19 tests administered at the White House. But McBath told Business Insider she wasn’t sure such measures were necessary.

“From the healthcare providers and the CDC, basically they’re saying that if you’re exhibiting symptoms, of course,” she said. “But if that’s not the case, then we’re to assume that we’re all fairly healthy. “

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