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WASHINGTON (AP) — Face masks are now optional for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, as Congress lifts its mask requirement on the House floor after federal regulators eased guidelines last week in an overhaul of the national strategy to adapt to life with a more manageable COVID-19.
The Congressional Physician’s Office announced the policy change Sunday, lifting a requirement that had been in place for much of the past two years and had become a partisan hot spot on Capitol Hill. The change before the speech will head off a potential disruptive display of national tensions and frustration as Biden tries to push the country beyond the pandemic.
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The nation’s capital is now in an area considered low-risk according to new measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which focus less on positive test results and more on what’s happening in community hospitals. The new system dramatically changes the look of the CDC’s risk map and places more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals. Healthy people in those at-risk areas can stop wearing masks indoors, the agency said.
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Mask-wearing will remain a personal choice in Congress, and special precautions will be in place for Biden’s speech, which, unlike last year’s joint speech, will be open to all members of Congress. All attendees will be required to take a COVID-19 test before entering the room before Biden’s address.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this month announced initial directives from the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms which included a threat that violation of social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines during the event “would result in the withdrawal of the participant”. The new policy allays fears among some Biden allies who were bracing for potentially disruptive Republican protests against the policies. Some GOP lawmakers have racked up thousands of dollars in fines for violating mask-wearing mandates on the House floor.
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The relaxed advice comes as Biden aims to use his remarks to highlight progress made against COVID-19 over the past year, including vaccinations and treatments, and guide the country into a ‘new phase’ of the virus response that is not driven by urgency measures and is more like pre-pandemic life.
Seating for Biden’s first speech to a joint session of Congress last April was capped at around 200 — about 20% of the usual capacity for a presidential presentation — and White House aides feared that a repetition is a dissonant image of the president’s message. aimed at delivering to the American people.
“I think you’re going to see this sound a lot more like a normal state of the union than the president’s joint speech,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Saturday. “It’s going to look like the most normal thing people have seen in Washington in a long time.”
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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 new CDC guidelines and lifting mandates from masks indoors and in schools.
The number of cases across the country has fallen precipitously since its peak in early January, with the omicron variant found to be less likely than previous strains to cause death or serious illness, especially in vaccinated and boosted people.