WASHINGTON (AP) — All members of Congress are invited to attend President Joe Biden’s upcoming State of the Union address, filling the House chamber for the first time since the pandemic struck as the House Blanche is trying to push COVID-19 into the national rearview mirror.
It’s one step closer to normalcy, but the week-long annual big talk starting next Tuesday could yet turn into yet another disruptive display of national tensions and frustration at trying to move beyond the pandemic.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office released guidelines for the Sergeant-at-Arms’ office Thursday in consultation with the doctor’s office.
Violations of social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines during the event “will result in withdrawal of the attendee,” the memo reads. rejected pandemic guidelines.
Some Biden allies worry the Capitol scene could add fuel to the fire, or that conservative anti-mask Republicans could use the speech for a stunt or protest.
No guests will be allowed.
Biden’s speech to Congress will play against what Vice President Kamala Harris called “unease” over the persistence of COVID and growing public impatience to get back to normal after two years of restrictions. Even Democratic-led state and local governments are lifting restrictions as cases, hospitalizations and deaths decline.
However, the State of the Union setting – Capitol Hill – remains one of the most disrupted workplaces in the country, a kind of ground zero for culture wars due to ongoing pandemic restrictions and security concerns. since the uprising of January 6, 2021.
Pelosi said last week lawmakers were aiming for “fuller turnout” than last year, when turnout was limited. She said, “I think people are ready to pivot in a way that shows the American people that we’ve been largely vaccinated here.”
Seating for Biden’s first speech to a joint session of Congress last April was limited to about 200 — about 20% of the usual capacity for a presidential presentation.
Although the Capitol and other federal properties set their own rules, the District of Columbia’s indoor mask requirement for most indoor gatherings and businesses is to be lifted the same day as Biden’s address, the White House. says she will go through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tips.
All year, the White House has taken extraordinary precautions to prevent Biden from contracting the virus, including requiring high-quality masks in his neighborhood and limiting his travel and attendance at major events.
In addition to members of Congress, the State of the Union audience traditionally includes members of the Cabinet, Supreme Court justices and military leaders. It is not yet clear if they will be invited.
A speech before a full chamber would be by far the densest audience of Biden’s presidency to date.
The debate over mask-wearing and vaccination rules has become a major front in the country’s culture wars, breaking down along regional and political lines. Scenes of maskless celebrities enjoying the Super Bowl – when school children in some jurisdictions are required to wear masks even when outside during recess – have drawn criticism for unfairness.
Federal officials are racing to finalize new, more flexible national guidelines on mask-wearing and other policies before Biden takes the stage in the House Chamber at 9:01 p.m.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when those measures are better, and then have the ability to hit them again, if things get worse,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday. .
She said the revised guidelines, to be coordinated with a broad administration plan for the “next phase” of the virus response, are expected to arrive towards the end of this month.
Administration officials expect this new strategy and message to feature prominently in Biden’s speech as pandemic fatigue becomes more pronounced.
The White House sees his speech — in concert with the expected easing of virus limits — as an opportunity to help stem an erosion of public trust in his leadership. According to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, just 45% of Americans said they approved of Biden’s handling of COVID-19, down from 57% in December and 66% in July.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week criticized the Democrats’ approach, saying they only recently changed their tune due to shifts in public opinion.
“The only science that has changed in the last two weeks is political science,” he said. “The only data that has changed in the last two weeks is the polling data from the Democrats.”