Citing 'irrational fears' of killer pandemic, Republicans fight face masks in Congress

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — A bitter dispute erupted in a congressional hearing room on Friday, with Republicans refusing to wear face coverings and Democrats insisting that they do so. 

“Why is this so complicated?” a frustrated Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said at one point in response to Republican intransigence, speaking through what appeared to be an N95 respirator. “There’s one thing we can do to try to protect other people when we’re together, which is put on a mask. It doesn’t cost us anything. Why would we not do that? Why is it some kind of macho thing, like, ‘If I don’t wear a mask, I’m tough’?”

Republicans did not appear to be moved by his appeals, or those of other Democrats. The charge against mask wearing was led by Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., a physician who was also a major in the U.S. Army. Green said he could “cite many other professionals” who advised against protective face coverings. 

Green did not proceed to cite any such professionals. 

Surgical masks and respirators can keep particles of the coronavirus from spreading, but President Trump and many of his allies in the Republican Party have cast the coverings as a symbol of liberal overreaction and onerous statism. Virtually every public health agency in the nation, including most prominently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends the wearing of face masks in public. 

Doing so could cut down viral transmission by as much as 85 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn. (Screengrab via House.gov)

The face mask culture war arrived in full force on Capitol Hill on Friday, a day in which the United States continued to see cases climb. More than 126,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19, the lower-respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. The virus is surging in Florida, Arizona and Texas, all states where Republican governors are close allies of the president who have shared his skepticism about safety measures like mask guidance. 

Green decided to denounce masks as part of his opening statement at a coronavirus-focused hearing held by a House Oversight subcommittee. 

The hearing was intended to examine the Government Accountability Office’s response to the pandemic, but it was at times derailed by the mask debate, as well as other partisan battles. At one point, for example, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a close ally of the president, asked that the GAO investigate China for its handling of the pandemic. The hearing’s primary witness, U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, explained that the GAO does not have authority to investigate China, as it is a sovereign nation. 

Green, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican member, seemed especially bothered by a scene that he had witnessed earlier that morning. “As I came in today,” he said angrily, “I saw a gentleman running on the sidewalk. There was no one within a hundred yards of the guy, yet he was wearing a mask while running. This speaks to the irrational fears this dishonest representation of the data by the media has caused,” Green concluded. 

Despite the claims Green and other Republicans have been making about masks, 65 percent of Americans say face covering should be required, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

The diatribe did not sit well with Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the subcommittee’s chairman. Clyburn noted that if the committee was to continue to hold in-person meetings, as opposed to digital ones, its members would have to adhere to the guidance of the attending physician of the U.S. Congress, Dr. Brian Monahan.

As members of Congress returned to Washington this spring, Monahan wrote that face coverings “should be promoted at all times.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has ordered that masks be worn in committee hearings, but Republicans’ intense dislike of her — coupled with the coronavirus skepticism of many GOP legislators — all but ensured that the guidance would become a political battlefield of its own.

“Please rest assured, I will exert what control I do have,” said Clyburn through a mask showing an outline of Washington, D.C., embossed with the number 51. That same day, the House of Representatives was set to vote for statehood for the nation’s capital. Republicans strongly oppose such a move. 

Rep. Mark Green, left, and Rep. James Clyburn. (Screengrabs via House.gov)

“If we wish to have these meetings in person,” Clyburn said, “we’re going to have to adhere to the attending physician, or I will not have these meetings in person. Just that simple.”

Jordan then tried to make a point about Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who has faced criticism from conservatives for his handling of the pandemic. Clyburn did not take kindly to the comment. “I have absolutely no control over the governor of New York, but I do have some control over this subcommittee. And I will exert it.”

Later, Green, who had led the anti-mask charge in the hearing, appeared to make something of a concession to Clyburn. “If you say, ‘Green, I want you to wear a mask, sir,’ I’ll wear a mask, you’re the chairman of my committee.” He did not, however, put on a mask. He also said he was telling his constituents in Tennessee not to wear masks unless they were in a high-risk population. 

Speaking to Yahoo News after the hearing, Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., expressed dismay at the ongoing mask debate. “I have no idea why they are so resistant, when it is really not a terrible inconvenience at all to wear a mask,” he said of his Republican colleagues. “Why not just take some of these precautions?”

_____

Read more from Yahoo News: