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Pelosi keeps mask mandate on House floor despite CDC change, sparking GOP backlash: ‘It’s about control’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) walks to a press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Under new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccinated Americans can now mostly ditch their masks indoors. But not lawmakers on the House floor.

Asked by CNN whether the House’s mask mandate would be relaxed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said, “No. Are they all vaccinated?”

‘Better days are ahead’: Maskless Biden marks milestone in virus battle

Her decision, which was outlined in updated guidelines issued Thursday night by Congress’s attending physician, drew swift backlash from Republicans who have long bristled at mask requirements. In a letter dated Friday, 34 GOP lawmakers urged Pelosi to drop the House’s pandemic restrictions.

“It’s about control,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Thursday evening. “She wants to control the House.”

The Republican pushback highlights the lingering partisan furor over mask mandates even as vaccinations and public health restrictions have helped drop coronavirus deaths and new infections to the lowest numbers since the onset of the pandemic.

The rapid spread of covid-19 in the United States began in early 2020. A lot has changed in our day-to-day lives since then, including the use of face masks. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Is it now reasonable to discuss the end of the pandemic? Yes, but with caveats.

In the Rose Garden on Thursday, President Biden pointed to those successes in announcing the new CDC guidelines. “Today is a great day for America,” Biden said. Earlier, in a nod toward bipartisan unity on the issue, Biden and a group of vaccinated GOP lawmakers peeled off their masks together.

But Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointed toward a lingering number of unvaccinated House members as part of the decision to keep mask rules in place on the House floor. Pelosi said last month that roughly a quarter of legislators have yet to receive a coronavirus vaccine and noted: “We cannot require someone to be vaccinated.”

Some Republicans have said they aren’t getting vaccinated because they’ve had covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and now have antibodies. Others, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) have publicly declined to take a vaccine.

House members could get a coronavirus vaccine. But a quarter of them have not.

Updated guidelines issued Thursday by Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician to Congress, say that the mask mandate will continue on the House floor “until all Members and floor staff are fully vaccinated.” His update also notes that per the CDC, “recovery from natural infection is not equivalent to completion of a vaccination.”

Monahan did say that, thanks to the new CDC policy, fully vaccinated staffers and lawmakers can gather mask-free in other House office spaces.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on April 29 again encouraged House members to get vaccinated against the coronavirus but said “we cannot require" it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Some Republican lawmakers, though, accused Pelosi of grandstanding on the issue and ignoring science on the risks of transmission. Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), who spearheaded the letter to Pelosi, called her stance “Mask-erpiece Theater.”

“Based on sound science, the CDC says those who are vaccinated have an incredibly low risk of becoming infected with coronavirus,” Gibbs said in a statement. “With that data, there is no reason the House of Representatives should not be fully open and returned to normal operations.”

Others Republicans suggested that most unvaccinated lawmakers have protection from previous infections.

“It should have been gone months ago,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) told Ingraham of the mandate. “Most of the members are either vaccinated or have antibodies. It’s a dumb rule to have.”

Pelosi, though, has made it clear that she wants to see the entire House vaccinated. Monahan has also told lawmakers that they need to be vaccinated even if they’ve previously had covid-19.

“You would hope that science would guide them to protect themselves, their family members and be good colleagues in the workplace to get vaccinated,” Pelosi said last month. “And the sooner that happens, the better for everything.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.