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Kuster "outraged" over refusal of Republican colleagues to wear masks under lockdown

  • Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., and others shelter in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik

Monitor staff
Published: 1/13/2021 6:38:40 PM

A week after a violent occupation of the U.S. Capitol building forced members of Congress to shelter in hiding, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster says she feels “total rage” at Republican representatives who refused to wear masks while locked down.

Since Monday, three representatives who had been sitting in the lockdown room say they have now tested positive for COVID-19. The revelations added a new layer of anger to some Democrats’ reaction to the day.

“Total Rage. Outrage,” Kuster said in an interview with the Monitor, describing the lack of mask usage. “I cannot imagine a more blatant example of the risk that we face bought from and by our Republican colleagues.”

Kuster had been one of dozens of lawmakers who had been watching the debate over the election certification from the House balcony. After receiving reports that a mob of hundreds of pro-Trump rioters had breached the building and entered the Rotunda, Kuster and others in the room were ushered out and into a safe room several floors below.

The journey was harrowing, she said. Amid reports of gunfire and a cacophony of shouting and broken glass, Kuster and others rode an elevator down to their escape. Inside the elevator she had one thought: At any moment the doors might open on the wrong floor and expose the group to a physical attack, or gunfire.

The group was able to safely escape. By 3 p.m. around 200 lawmakers, staff and reporters suddenly found themselves huddled in a room, waiting out the surrounding chaos.

That’s when a new threat emerged, Kuster says: a lack of masks. Several members of the House Freedom Caucus were in the room and refusing to wear masks.

“I refer to it as the threat from without and the threat from within – we faced both that day,” she said.

A video that emerged a day later showed a huddle of four representatives standing maskless in the room near a table. A Democratic representative at one point offers them masks and they decline.

Kuster says she, too, asked one of her colleagues to wear a mask, and was also refused. “I can’t breathe,” he told her, Kuster said.

At first, as legislators of both parties took stock of the damage in the wake of the riots, the COVID-19 threat of sheltering in place for hours at a time received less attention. But soon after, the attending physician for the Capitol warned lawmakers afterward that there was a transmission risk, prompting New Hampshire Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen to accept the vaccine after previously refusing.

Then, on Monday, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a 75-year-old cancer survivor, confirmed that she had tested positive for COVID-19. On Tuesday, Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Brad Schneider said they had also tested positive. All three representatives had been huddled in the same room during the Jan. 6 riots.

In statements announcing their positive test results, the representatives excoriated House Republicans for refusing masks. One member defended her choice to do so. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said that she had no symptoms and had tested negative for the virus on Jan. 6 and argued, falsely, that healthy people cannot spread the virus.

For her part, Kuster had been partially vaccinated at the time of the lockdown. She received her first dose of vaccine Dec. 17 and her second on Jan. 7, a day after sitting in the group.

Still, the vaccine needs both doses to be fully effective, she noted, and the second dose doesn’t take effect for two weeks.

Kuster is awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test she took on Monday, she told the Monitor . On Wednesday, Kuster cast her vote to impeach President Trump by proxy as she awaited COVID-19 test results.

“I feel like I’m a bit of a science experiment right now,” she said before the vote.

Kuster’s decision to get the vaccine early on came under criticism at the time. In December, Gov. Chris Sununu criticized members of Congress and elected officials for getting the vaccine before older, more vulnerable populations could do so. Rep. Chris Pappas and Sens. Shaheen and Hassan had declined at the time.

That criticism resurfaced Tuesday with the New Hampshire Republican Party issued a statement calling New Hampshire’s delegation members that received the vaccine – now all but Pappas – “unconscionable” and accused them of skipping the line.

Kuster has rejected that characterization. The vaccine doses she has received were provided by the District of Columbia’s supply, not New Hampshire’s, she said Tuesday. And because they were reserved for Congress, they would have been offered to younger staff members next if had she refused, she added.

Meanwhile, the news of the infections prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to issue new sanctions against members who don’t wear their masks on the House floor: $500 for a first-time offense and $2,500 for a following violation. The fines are to be taken out of members’ legislative pay.

But Kuster says it’s difficult to inspire voluntary actions. “Members have a great deal of autonomy,” she said.

“The enforcement is very challenging, and I would say that some of my colleagues are looking for a confrontation,” she added.

As for unity moving forward, or even collegiality, Kuster argued it was only possible to a point.

“These are many of the very people that were involved in the planning of the insurrection on the Capitol, and were participating in inciting the mob on the Capitol,” she said.

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