Face coverings are now optional for President Biden's State of the Union address Tuesday, as Congress is lifting its mask requirement on the House floor after federal regulators eased guidelines last week in a rethinking of the nation's strategy to adapt to living with a more manageable COVID-19. Congress' Office of the Attending Physician announced the policy change Sunday, lifting a requirement that has been in place for much of the past two years and had become a partisan flashpoint on Capitol Hill. The change ahead of the speech will avoid a potential disruptive display of national tensions and frustration as Biden tries to nudge the country to move beyond the pandemic, the AP reports.
The nation's capital is now in an area considered low risk under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new metrics, which place less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening in community hospitals. Mask-wearing will still be a personal choice in Congress and special precautions will be in place for Biden's speech, which unlike last year's joint address will be open to all members of Congress. All attendees will be required to take a COVID-19 test before entering the chamber ahead of Biden's address. The Capitol move comes just a day before Washington's mask mandate expires on Monday, and as a host of state and local governments have begun implementing the new CDC guidelines and lifting mask-mandates indoors and in schools.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced initial guidelines earlier this month from the Office of the Sergeant at Arms that included a threat that violation of guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing during the event would "result in the attendee’s removal." The new policy eases the fears of some Biden allies who had been gearing up for potentially disruptive protests from Republicans to the policies. Some GOP lawmakers have racked up thousands of dollars in fines for violating mask-wearing mandates on the House floor. The relaxed guidance comes as Biden aims to use his remarks to highlight the progress against COVID-19 made over the last year, including vaccinations and therapeutics, and guide the country into a “new phase” of the virus response that is not driven by emergency measures and looks more like life pre-pandemic.
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