WASHINGTON — Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who has refused to wear a mask, tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday shortly before he was expected to travel with President Donald Trump to Texas.
Gohmert, 66, one of the most outspokenly conservative members of Congress, said he tested positive during the routine screening at the White House prior to boarding Air Force One and blamed his infection on the fact that he had begun to wear a mask more frequently in recent days.
News that the Texas Republican contracted the coronavirus sent lawmakers scrambling to account for Gohmert's whereabouts in the Capitol in the days leading up to his positive test. It also reignited conversations about whether lawmakers, many of whom travel to Washington from all around the country and tend to be in vulnerable age groups, were taking appropriate precautions to prevent an outbreak on Capitol Hill.
Gohmert attended Attorney General William Barr’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, sitting for hours in a hearing room with dozens of other lawmakers. Gohmert, along with other Republicans, was seen at times during the day without a mask.
In an interview with a local Texas news station Wednesday morning after learning he was infected, Gohmert said it was "ironic" that he tested positive "because a lot of people have made a big deal out of my not wearing a mask a whole lot, but in the last week or two I have worn a mask more than I have in the whole last four months.”
“I can't help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, if I might have put some germs, some of the virus on the mask and breathed it in," he said.
Gohmert appeared to be dialing into the interview from his Capitol Hill office, where many lawmakers and staffers were working Wednesday. It is unclear why he went back to the Hill, where social distancing can be difficult, after testing positive.
In a statement he posted to Twitter, Gohmert said he would be "very, very careful" to make sure he did not give the coronavirus to anyone and referred to it as “the Wuhan virus,” a phrase that has been associated with a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Gohmert was seen standing in proximity to Barr in the Capitol hallway Tuesday while neither he nor Barr wore a mask. His chief of staff, Connie Hair, tweeted Wednesday that "he wore a mask at the hearing, unless he was speaking," and suggested, as Gohmert did, that fiddling with the mask could have been what led to infection.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec confirmed reports that Barr took a coronavirus test Wednesday after it was revealed Gohmert had tested positive. Kupec said Barr's test was negative for the virus.
Rep. Kay Granger, also a Texas Republican, said she was seated next to Gohmert on a flight from Texas on Sunday evening and would self-quarantine at the direction of the Congress's attending physician. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he would also self-quarantine after attending a hearing of the Natural Resources Committee with Gohmert on Tuesday.
On Wednesday night, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., said on Twitter that he had dinner with Gohmert on Tuesday and would self-quarantine.
"While I feel healthy, exhibit no symptoms, and have otherwise followed mask and social distancing guidelines, the attending physician has advised that I should self-quarantine for 14 days out of an abundance of caution," Johnson said.
It is unclear when an infected person becomes contagious. The World Health Organization has said that people who have not developed symptoms can pass the virus to others, but more research is needed to understand how frequently that occurs.
Gohmert told CNN in June that he was not wearing a mask because he was tested regularly for the coronavirus, but that he would wear one if he tested positive.
"I don't have the coronavirus, turns out as of yesterday I've never had it," he said. "But if I get it, you'll never see me without a mask."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear a mask when in public, regardless of whether they have tested positive or negative for the coronavirus. The CDC says that masks are critical to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, especially in cases where an infected person does not have symptoms and is unaware that they could make others sick.
“If you test positive or negative for COVID-19 on a viral or an antibody test, you still should take preventive measures to protect yourself and others,” the CDC website says.
Gohmert was potentially exposed to the coronavirus after he attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February. Gohmert tweeted at the time that a CDC physician had cleared him to return to work in Washington after assessing his situation.
Multiple lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus since the outbreak hit the U.S. earlier this year, and many others have self-quarantined after potential exposure. Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., Neal Dunn, R-Fla., Morgan Griffith, R-Va., Mike Kelly, R-Pa., Ben McAdams, D-Utah, Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., and Tom Rice, R-S.C., have tested positive for the virus. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has also tested positive.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in response to the news on Gohmert that she was “so sorry” for the lawmaker. “But I’m also sorry for my members, who are concerned because he has been showing up at meetings without a mask and making a thing of it,” she said.
Pelosi on Wednesday announced a mask requirement for anyone in the House chamber and starting Thursday, anyone in the House offices will need to wear a mask.
When asked about Gohmert, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said he was “concerned about the irresponsible behavior of many of the Republicans who have chosen to consistently flout well-established public health guidance perhaps out of fealty to their boss, Donald Trump, who is the head of the anti-mask movement in America.”
Congress declined the White House's offer to provide lawmakers with rapid coronavirus testing capabilities earlier this year.