WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. Congress reacted jubilantly and removed their masks on Thursday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can stop wearing face coverings even indoors in most cases.
"Free at last," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said as he left the chamber, according to a reporter for The New York Times, who tweeted out a photo of a maskless McConnell.
Inside the Senate, Senator Susan Collins, also a Republican, was seen waving her mask in the air in celebration https://www.reuters.com/world/us/cdc-ease-mask-guidance-vaccinated-people-sources-2021-05-13.
Over in the House of Representatives, most members appeared to be still wearing their masks on the floor during afternoon votes. But one of them rose, maskless, to protest.
"Madam Speaker ... I ask that given the updated CDC guidance, we all take off these stupid masks," declared Republican Representative Brian Mast, demonstratively placing his mask on the seat behind him.
Masks became a political flashpoint during the pandemic that has killed more than 585,000 Americans - more than one in 600 - with Republicans arguing that public health officials' advice that masks could slow the spread of COVID-19 infringed on individual liberties.
Former President Donald Trump, a Republican, resisted mandating masks and often played down the severity of the pandemic. Democratic President Joe Biden, who has made tackling the pandemic a top priority, embracing masks and mandating them for transit hubs, on Thursday celebrated the updated guidance from his administration by shedding his.
More than 30 members of Congress contracted the disease and one - Representative Ron Wright of Texas - died of it in February.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not respond when a reporter asked whether the masks could now come off.
Just two days ago, Pelosi announced that the rules that required all lawmakers and staff to wear masks on the House floor would be relaxed, so lawmakers could remove them when they are recognized to speak during debate.
The CDC on Thursday advised that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can avoid wearing them indoors in most places. The Capitol attending physician's office did not immediately return a phone call about the new CDC guidance.
Since December, lawmakers had been required to keep their masks on at all times on the House floor, even during debate. In January, the Democratic-run House even voted to impose fines on any members who did not comply.
This produced grumbling from a number of members, especially Republicans. "When do Americans get their freedom back," Representative Jim Jordan demanded in a hearing last month with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious disease expert.
In the Senate, meanwhile, there has been no hard-and-fast rule, but most senators have worn masks around the Capitol.
Senator Rand Paul, a Republican who tested positive for the virus back in March 2020, refused, despite complaints from some of his fellow senators. "If you've had the disease or you've been vaccinated and you're several weeks out from the second dose, throw your mask away," Paul told Fox News in January.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)