Congress drops mask mandate just ahead of Biden's State of the Union address

It's unclear how many Republicans will show up to Biden's speech.

March 1, 2022, 5:02 AM

Masks will no longer be required in the House chamber when President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, a major reversal in the politically controversial policy that reinforces his message that the pandemic is receding and America is getting back to something closer to normal.

On Sunday, the U.S. Capitol's attending physician lifted a mask mandate for lawmakers inside the House chamber just two days before Biden's nationally televised prime-time speech.

The new guidance sharply reduces the chances of a potential confrontation with Republican lawmakers who don't believe masks are necessary and violate their freedom.

"Individuals may choose to mask at any time, but it is no longer a requirement," Capitol physician Brian Monahan said in a memo shared Sunday, saying masks in the House chamber and elsewhere on the Capitol grounds are now optional after about two years of being required.

All 535 members of Congress are also invited to attend Biden's address this year due to the relaxed coronavirus measures, a marked difference from last year's address, when only 200 members showed up due to stringent COVID-19 policies.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi applaud as President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 28, 2021.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE

The shift in guidance comes just two weeks after the Capitol physician and House sergeant at arms initially warned that attendees must wear a KN95/N95 mask to Biden's speech and if they refused, they would risk being removed from the chamber or fined.

Republicans have sought for months to reverse Pelosi's mandate, even going as far as filing a federal lawsuit.

Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi listen to President Joe Biden address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, April 28, 2021.
Melina Mara/POOL/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

It's unclear at this point how many Republican lawmakers will actually show up to hear Biden's address in person, but at least two Republicans have announced they will not attend due to other COVID requirements for attendees, which include getting a COVID test at least one day before the speech.

"I don't have time to go take a COVID test today. I only take a test if I'm sick," GOP Sen. Marco Rubio told reporters Monday.

GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas tweeted in response to Rubio's statement late Monday: "Same. I will not attend."

The move to remove the mask mandate at the Capitol ahead of Biden's speech highlights the quickly evolving conditions of the pandemic and how eager some Democrats, including the president himself, are about projecting a "return to normalcy."

Monahan noted in his letter that the "Washington DC region is now in the "green level" or low level in this new CDC schema allowing for reduction in coronavirus prevention measures such as coronavirus testing frequency and indoor mask wear."

He added that positive COVID-19 test rates at the Capitol are down to 2.7% in the last two weeks, below the current rate for the D.C. Metropolitan area of 4.7%).

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on April 28, 2021, in Washington.
Melina Mara/Pool via Getty Images, FILE

Monahan's announcement came just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also updated its mask guidance late last week, easing its recommendations on masks for most Americans living in communities with "low" or "medium" levels of coronavirus.

This all comes as many governors -- many of them Democrats -- are also easing up on mask mandates.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki denied Biden had any role in masks not being required in the House chamber for his speech.

"The president is very powerful, but he couldn't make us be in the green zone that we're in right now in D.C., that's why we are not required, we're not going to be required to wear masks starting tomorrow," she said, referring to D.C. and the White House lifting mask mandates as of March 1.

"For him, it had nothing to do with the timing around the State of the Union," she added. "He wanted to give the CDC the time to assess and make recommendations that would be clear to the American public about what their recommendations would be for mask wearing moving forward."

A White House official confirmed to ABC News that masks will no longer be required for fully vaccinated individuals on the White House campus, either, starting Tuesday.

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