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Congress drops mask mandate in time for State of the Union

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Members of Congress will no longer be required to wear masks while attending the State of the Union, reducing the likelihood of a potential standoff with Republicans lawmakers who were growing increasingly vocal in their opposition to face coverings.

In a Sunday night memo, Brian Monahan, Congress' attending physician, said mask wearing "is now an individual choice option."

The House sergeant at arms originally told members in a February 17 memo that attendees "must continuously wear an issued, FDA-authorized, KN95 or N95 mask that completely covers the nose and mouth." Anyone who refused to comply could be removed from the event or fined, the memo said.

The updated guidance came amid a contentious, and at times heated, dispute over rules requiring members of the House of Representatives wear face masks in the House Chamber where they debate and vote. A mask mandate – first implemented by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in July 2020 – has led to angry words, a federal lawsuit and a series of monetary fines for lawmakers.

Joe Biden — Congress
President Biden arrives ahead of his speech a joint session of Congress as Vice President Harris (L) and Speaker of the House U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi (R) look on in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Getty Images

Violating the House's mask mandate comes with a steep fine: $500 for the first offense and $2,500 for subsequent offenses, to be deducted directly from a member's salary. While many lawmakers have complied, Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde of Georgia have racked up at least $95,000 and $63,000 in penalties, respectively, according to a CBS News calculation of the fines posted by the House Ethics Committee. That number could be even higher due to a delay between violations and public reporting by the committee. 

With more states and localities lifting mask mandates, the requirement at the president's address sparked renewed debate about whether lawmakers should cover their faces.

Maryland Republican Representative Andy Harris, a former physician who co-chairs the GOP doctors caucus, said in an interview with CBS News before the updated guidance came down that the burden of masking should shift to those who are worried about catching the virus. 

"We should be leading the storyline that in fact, it's safe to come out. It's safe to resume our normal lives. And the fact that we would have a state of the union where everyone is wearing a mask indoors, I think is regressive," he said. "We should be moving to the point where if you're at high risk, you wear a mask. If you're not at high risk, you know you're free to move freely in society."

Other Republicans accused Pelosi of ignoring the science behind masks and even acting hypocritically in their own mask wearing. 

"Cities and states all across the country are finally beginning to drop their unnecessary mask mandates, even those run by Democrats," said Michigan Republican Representative Lisa McClain. "We've seen House Democrats, including the Speaker, maskless for political events and sporting events. Even Washington, D.C. is dropping its mask mandate before the State of the Union. There's truly no logic behind the mandates in Congress."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has been vocally critical of the mask mandate since last summer. 

The Centers for Disease Control updated its recommendations Friday to say that Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors in areas with low levels of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Washington, D.C. is listed in the "green" zone where indoor masking is no longer recommended - though members travel to the Capitol from all over the country and comprise some of the 28% of Americans who live in counties with high community levels of the virus. 

Democrats, for their part, have accused Republicans of using protests to politicize the mask mandates.  Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said "The science is clear that the use of high-quality, properly fitting masks can drastically reduce the spread of COVID-19. It should not be controversial, when gathering a large group of people in a confined space, that masking is utilized as a mitigation measure."

A group of U.S. House Republicans, including Taylor Greene, filed a federal civil lawsuit against Speaker Pelosi seeking to have the court rule the monetary fines unconstitutional.   hey alleged the fines were "cudgel" being used against "political opponents" of House Democratic leaders. 

At a D.C. federal court hearing in December, attorneys representing House Democratic leadership argued the case should be dismissed. Parties are awaiting the judge's ruling on that motion.

An attorney representing House Republicans challenging the mandate told CBS News, "Regardless of who wins or loses that motion, there will almost certainly be an appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on the immunity issue from the losing party."

While the threat of additional fines has now dissipated, it's unclear whether more mask-averse lawmakers will attend. Taylor Greene did not respond to a request for comment from CBS News, and a spokeswoman for Clyde said he was unsure whether he would attend.

"Democrats' false safety protocols paint a revealing picture of their ideal vision for the People's House – where Republican members are unwanted and American citizens are unwelcomed," Clyde said.

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