After returning from a three-week recess, House Democrats on Tuesday held their first in-person caucus conference in over a year.
Lawmakers further returned to Washington this week without having to abide by a universal mask condition in the House chamber anymore. Masks are now scattered throughout the Capitol complex, among both parties, aside from a few staff and lawmakers who proceed to wear them at their own will.
Members of Congress — a particularly extroverted bunch — are clearly reveling in freely glad-handing and embracing on the floor after months of being required to keep each other at arm’s length.
“We are certainly thankful that things are moving in the right direction,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) announced.
Though notwithstanding the more comfortable environment, Capitol Hill still isn’t quite the same as it was before the virus.
Proxy voting remains in place in the House for lawmakers to cast votes remotely until at least July 3, over a year after it was established last May. In the meantime, the Capitol still remains closed to tourists and the general public.
A senior Democratic aide announced that lifting the remaining limitations will depend on advice from the Capitol physician.
Other safety standards established after the Jan. 6 insurrection have no end date in sight, like the metal detectors outside the House chamber and the fence still circling the Capitol building.
The Speaker’s Lobby, a hallway lining the south side of the House chamber that traditionally has been a meeting place for lawmakers, staff and journalists through floor votes, is further still closed off to the press since the beginning of the pandemic. And in the weeks since Jan. 6, metal detectors have been placed at each entrance for screening everyone entering the House chamber.
Across the Capitol, senators have been meeting in person for months and started shedding masks immediately after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) statement last month that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can abandon facial coverings in most settings.
Though it’s always been a different dynamic in the upper chamber, where almost all of its members voluntarily complied with mask-wearing when recommended and, according to a recent CNN poll, are now vaccinated.
By contrast, a sizable number of House Republicans opposed mask recommendations from the start. That prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to mandate compliance in the chamber last summer. Violations ultimately grew punishable by fines starting at $500.
Notwithstanding members of Congress having access to vaccines since December, about half of House Republicans recently refused to confirm to CNN if they are vaccinated. All Democrats in the House and Senate have confirmed they were vaccinated.