As word spread on Wednesday that another lawmaker had contracted COVID-19, initial concern for his well-being was quickly overwhelmed with a tide of anger and frustration. Because it wasn’t just any lawmaker who contracted the disease. It was Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).
The conservative firebrand has steadfastly refused to wear a face mask while conducting his Capitol Hill business—including while greeting Attorney General William Barr before testimony in the Judiciary Committee just this Tuesday. Gohmert even took pains to force his COVID denialism on his aides, with one staffer suggesting to Politico that those in the office were berated for wearing masks and revealing that Gohmert forced his entire staff to work in his D.C. office as an example of how to safely reopen.
Gohmert’s colleagues—on both sides of the aisle—were aghast at the turn of events and spared nothing in their condemnations of his carelessness. One GOP aide described the mood on the Hill as “pissed.”
When the Texas Republican later contended to a local TV station that he might have gotten sick because of getting germs on a mask while wearing one, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) tweeted, “This is the COVID version of claiming you got VD from a toilet seat. That hydroxychloroquine must be starting to impair Louis' mental faculties.”
Sitting outside the House floor while staff gave it a deep-clean between votes—a stepped-up safety precaution after Gohmert’s revelation—Huffman said he and many of his colleagues were alarmed about the possibility of a serious outbreak hitting Capitol Hill.
“I think the Gohmert positive test this morning is, you know, having a little bit of a seismic effect,” said the Democrat.
One of the few House members to get the virus, Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT), was similarly circumspect.
“I think a lot of people are really concerned,” he explained. “I got it, I was really sick, I spent eight days at the hospital… I think it's important that we take this seriously. The precautions that we can take are pretty minimal, you know, it's just simply a minor inconvenience of wearing a mask and being careful to not be too close to other people.”
Gohmert’s diagnosis came only because the Texan was scheduled to fly with President Donald Trump to Texas on Wednesday, and was required to be tested because of his proximity to the president. And it raised additional questions as to why members of Congress aren’t taking similar precautions, and whether it can possibly operate safely while a stubborn anti-mask faction spreads germs and flouts public health guidance.
Currently, there is no set testing protocol for lawmakers, aides, and staff, and there is no temperature-check requirement to enter the Capitol, a precaution that restaurants, gyms, casinos, and businesses have widely implemented. While masks are required around Capitol Hill, clearly, those mandates aren’t always heeded.
Though many congressional offices are asking aides to work from home and there are far fewer reporters and visitors than in normal times, the Capitol complex is still busy with lawmakers—who are flying in from around the country—and many members of support and custodial staff. Already, over 80 such front-line staff have tested positive for COVID, according to Roll Call.
Gohmert’s diagnosis was another reminder to lawmakers that their confines not only present the exact type of setting where COVID can seriously spread, but are filled with the exact people (mainly, the elderly) to whom the virus does the most damage. By Wednesday afternoon, impatience was mounting.
“Since it’s clear that certain members are refusing to take even the most basic precautions to protect their colleagues, staff, Capitol police and employees, leadership must hold them accountable,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN).
In the way of accountability measures, Phillips suggested barring entrance to the House, committee rooms, and office buildings for those without masks, and “level[ing] sanctions for those who knowingly and willfully violate the rules.”
The number two House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), said on Wednesday that there will be new talks about testing protocols in the Capitol and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), said on Wednesday that she would be introducing a mandator mask policy on the House floor. A senior Democratic aide told The Daily Beast that the expectation had grown on Wednesday that Congress would adjust its testing protocols—but noted there was uncertainty over how closely people would comply with any new safety guidelines. “People are at a loss for words,” said the aide. “Angry about how selfish and irresponsible he is, but at the same time no one is at all surprised.”
Gohmert is, to date, the 11th member of Congress to announce that they have gotten the coronavirus. But among them, he may be the most skeptical of public health practices to guard against the virus. On July 8, he appeared on One America News and praised the unproven COVID-19 remedy hydroxychloroquine, after complaining that people were “just worshipping” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s infectious disease specialist. He went on to lament the cleaning “gunk” that staff were using to sanitize spaces on Capitol Hill.
The congressman has also frequently been seen on the House floor and in committee rooms speaking with colleagues without a mask. In the early days of the pandemic, as Capitol authorities shut the building down to tourists, Gohmert insisted on taking tour groups of school-aged children through the building himself.
The announcement that he had contracted the disease was, for that reason, seen almost as karmic retribution had the issue not been so serious. One congressman called Gohmert and other COVID truthers “neanderthals,” adding that the diagnosis was “unbelievably believable.”
For Republicans, the diagnosis comes at a particular difficult time, as the party continues to push for states and schools to reopen, and with some members arguing that the risks of transmission are statistically low.
In the immediate aftermath, Attorney General Barr’s office announced that he would get tested due to how close he and Gohmert were on Tuesday. A GOP member meeting that was scheduled to be held in person on Wednesday afternoon was abruptly shifted to a conference call after the Gohmert news broke, according to a source familiar with the meeting. And Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), who is 77, announced that she would self-quarantine after sitting next to Gohmert on a flight to Washington on Sunday.
Asked by The Daily Beast if his members needed to be more vigilant about wearing masks, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House GOP leader, said “I think our members do take the masks seriously.”
Privately, for some Republicans, the Gohmert fiasco seemed to confirm their worst fears about the risk posed by mask-skeptics in their ranks—both to health and to the GOP brand.
One exasperated House Republican aide, requesting anonymity to discuss internal dynamics candidly, said “it’s been a banner last couple days for the crazies in our Conference,” citing not just Gohmert’s embarrassment but Rep. Ted Yoho’s (R-FL) calling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) a “fucking bitch,” and the GOP meeting last week where several male lawmakers ganged up on Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) for having the temerity to defend Fauci.
“If there were ever going to be a wake-up call that we might need to change as a party,” said the aide, “this week might help.”