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Lawmaker tests positive, leaving congress rattled

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders leave a luncheon in Washington.

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31st-Jul-2020       
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The New York Times :
Rep Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who has frequently refused to don a face covering in the Capitol, confirmed on Wednesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus before a planned trip with President Donald Trump on Air Force One, and he blamed his diagnosis on wearing a mask.
The results immediately sent a shudder through the Capitol, where this week Gohmert has been voting and actively participating in congressional hearings, including a Judiciary Committee session on Tuesday with Attorney General William Barr and another held by the Natural Resources Committee.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday announced a new mandate requiring lawmakers and staff to wear masks on the House floor and in House office buildings, on penalty of removal. And at least two colleagues and several aides who had contact with Gohmert announced they would quarantine, while Barr planned to be tested.
Gohmert, 66, said he was not experiencing symptoms but had notified colleagues with whom he may have come into contact.
Smiling in a video recorded in his Capitol Hill office, he declared he had probably gotten the "Wuhan virus" because he had started wearing a mask over the past week or two - not despite it.
Gohmert's use of the term flew in the face of warnings from medical historians and public health experts that associating a pandemic with a particular ethnic group can lead to discrimination. And his theory for how he contracted the virus contradicted the overwhelming consensus of medical experts that wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the disease.
His diagnosis also revived urgent questions about whether it was safe for Congress - with its 100 senators and 435 representatives, many of them over 65 and thus at higher risk for the virus - to continue to meet amid the pandemic, and whether lawmakers were taking sufficient precautions. Members have adopted unevenly enforced safety protocols and allowed themselves to bounce each week between the capital and their home states, some of which are experiencing surges of the virus, without getting tested.

House and Senate leaders turned down an offer from the White House in May for rapid-testing ability, saying that they would prefer that resources be sent to front-line workers. On Wednesday, their top deputies said the time had come to reconsider.

"For members of Congress who are going back and forth, they represent sort of the perfect petri dish for how you spread a disease," said Sen. Roy Blunt, the chairman of the Rules Committee. "Send 535 people out to 535 different locations on about 1,000 different airplanes, and bring them back and see what happens. It seems to me there's a better path forward."

Rep Steny Hoyer, the majority leader, said he planned to press Pelosi and the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, on the matter. McCarthy urged his members to wear their masks and renewed previous calls for lawmakers to be tested regularly.

To date, Pelosi had required masks be used in House hearings and encouraged - but not required - their use on the floor. She said Wednesday that she considered doing so "a sign of respect" and that failing to wear a facial covering on the House floor going forward would be treated as "a serious breach of decorum" that could lead to a member's removal from the floor.

Gohmert is far from the first member of Congress to contract the coronavirus. A tally maintained by GovTrack puts that number at 10, with dozens more having isolated for a period of time after coming into contact with someone carrying it. But not since Sen Rand Paul of Kentucky tested positive in late March as senators were trying to cinch a coronavirus relief deal has Congress been so shaken by signs of the virus circulating among its ranks.

By mid-afternoon, lawmakers, support staff and journalists were racing to isolate themselves after possible exposure, as health officials were left to try to retrace Gohmert's steps. It was a daunting task because Gohmert is a frequent schmoozer who could have come into close contact with dozens of fellow lawmakers and aides this week alone.

Dr Brian Monahan, Congress' attending physician, advised members of the Judiciary Committee that they could be at elevated risk if they sat near Gohmert or used the same equipment, but said Democrats, at least, did not need to quarantine.

Rep Raúl M Grijalva, the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that he would isolate himself until he could get test results because of extended contact with Gohmert in his committee's hearing.

"In the meantime, my work schedule and the lives of my employees are disrupted," said Grijalva, 72. "This stems from a selfish act by Mr. Gohmert, who is just one member of Congress."

A spokeswoman for Rep Kay Granger, 77, a fellow Texas Republican who sat beside Gohmert on Sunday evening on a flight from Texas, said she would quarantine at Monahan's direction, "and out of an abundance of caution." Several Republican staff aides for the natural resources panel also planned to quarantine, a spokesman said.

Lawmakers and Barr were seated more than 6 feet apart during his hearing, but reporters spotted a maskless Gohmert outside the hearing room exchanging words with Barr, whose face was also uncovered. A Justice Department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said that the attorney general would be tested on Wednesday.

Gohmert's spokeswoman and chief of staff did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats, in particular, were furious at the news. Gohmert is among a group of House Republicans, many of whom form the conservative Freedom Caucus, who have frequently refused to wear masks on the House floor and in the halls of the Capitol complex, despite warnings from public health experts and an outbreak in his home state.

"I'm concerned about the irresponsible behaviour of many of the Republicans who have chosen to consistently flout well-established public health guidance," said Rep Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the Judiciary Committee. He pleaded with Republicans like Gohmert to put on masks or go home.

Hoyer urged him to vote by proxy under new rules pushed through by Democrats to allow lawmakers to skip travelling to Washington during the pandemic and instead deputise a colleague to cast votes on their behalf. Republicans bitterly opposed the change and have sued in federal court to have it declared unconstitutional.

Gohmert said he only found out that he had the virus when he went to the White House at 7 am Wednesday and was screened in line with the White House policy of testing anyone who would be near Trump. Gohmert tested positive twice.

In an interview from his office later Wednesday, he told KETK TV, a Texas Fox affiliate, that he would isolate for 10 days on the advice of doctors and would wear a mask "religiously" until he was cleared. But he said his diagnosis had vindicated his scepticism about wearing facial coverings to guard against the spread of the virus.

"There are an awful lot of people who think it's the great thing to do all the time, but I can't help but think if I hadn't been wearing a mask so much in the last 10 days or so, I really wonder if I would have gotten it," Gohmert said. "Moving the mask around, getting it sitting just right, I am bound to have put some virus on the mask that I sucked in. That is most likely what happened."

Gohmert, who has represented a deeply conservative portion of East Texas in Congress since 2005, is known for his attention-grabbing, high-volume invectives against Democrats and for his levelling of conspiratorial charges toward the FBI and other career government officials.

An aide to Gohmert sent an extraordinary email to Politico after it broke the news of Gohmert's diagnosis suggesting that the congressman's entire staff had been ordered to continue going to work amid the pandemic in order to be an example of how the nation could safely reopen, and that those who wore masks had been berated for doing so. Many lawmakers have directed staff aides to work from home, and have instructed those who come in person to wear a mask at all times.


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