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Virginia Heffernan: Rep. Louie Gohmert, and the rest of Congress' reluctant maskers, are beyond irrational

Virginia Heffernan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

There are no intelligent grounds for rejecting masks. They're simple and cheap, and they protect humans against a vicious disease that has caused more than 660,000 deaths across the world.

Refusing to wear a mask is like supporting the fire against the fire department. It's like openly sneezing into a packed elevator. It's stupid. It's also kind of disgusting.

But that didn't stop Herman Cain -- the accomplished businessman and onetime presidential hopeful, who aides announced Thursday had died of COVID-19 -- from rejecting masks. Before he headed to President Donald Trump's June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he tweeted jubilantly that "masks will not be mandatory for the event" because "PEOPLE ARE FED UP!"

And the stupidity of refusing to mask up did not stop Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert from appearing bare-faced around the Capitol recently. This kind of infantile rebellion is pathetic.

July 28 on Capitol Hill, when the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony by Attorney General William Barr, some reluctant maskers had to be reminded by the committee chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), to keep their masks on. Though Gohmert insisted he wasn't among those admonished by the chair, he could be seen maskless intermittently during the hearing, and a video surfaced that showed him, along with Barr, entering the hearing room without masks.

Now it turns out that Gohmert is infected. In advance of a planned trip to Texas with President Trump on Wednesday, Gohmert took a test: Positive. He wasn't allowed on the plane.

This is bad news. Gohmert is the 11th known member Congress to contract the coronavirus. The others are all Republicans, except for Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah).

Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, also came up positive during the week. O'Brien joins a long list of White House and W.H.-adjacent personnel who have contracted the virus, including a cafeteria employee, a personal assistant to Ivanka Trump, members of the Secret Service, a military aide to the president, Vice President Mike Pence's press secretary, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is the consort of Donald Trump Jr. and a high-profile member of Trump's reelection campaign.

Gohmert appears to be uniquely uninformed about the pandemic -- and indifferent to his own health. Of his diagnosis, Gohmert told Texas television station KETK, "I can't help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, I might have put some germs -- some virus -- onto the mask and breathed it in," Gohmert said.

So Gohmert gave himself COVID-19 because he already had it. How is this person a member of Congress?

Gohmert is at least consistent with his idiocy. In early March, a slate of conservative lawmakers, including Gohmert, was exposed to an infected person at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference. The event provided its own kind of contact tracing, and a passel of Trumpite luminaries, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chose to quarantine out of what Cruz at the time called "an abundance of caution."

But not Gohmert. He opted for a dearth of caution. He "took no action," in the language of a GovTrack report charting COVID-19 in Congress.

Since then, Gohmert claims he has been getting tested regularly, and he has been seen occasionally wearing a bandana. He seems to have gotten swabbed Wednesday chiefly because the president requires a clean bill of health for anyone who comes near him. Trump, of course, nearly always forgoes a mask. (Trump also claimed on July 28 that most of America is "corona-free." Yeah, no.)

 

Gohmert reported in a video on his website that he was first given the "quick test" for what he, like many anti-Asian bigots, calls the "Wuhan virus." When that came back positive, he was retested with "the swab that goes way up in your sinuses" (In fact, it goes in the cavity between the nose and the mouth). It too was positive.

Ordinary Americans, of course, don't get such speedy results. We're stuck with our country's nontesting nonprogram, which, as Bill Gates told CNBC on Wednesday, is a "complete waste" because results take too long. It's nearly useless as a public -- or personal -- health measure.

Which is why the majority of Americans don't get cute with the pandemic. We're wearing masks and observing social distancing, whatever our politics.

The Republican leadership that appears to be on tilt must bewilder their constituents. Most of the members of Congress who have suffered with the virus -- and all whom are anti-mask -- come from currently hard-hit red states. Gohmert's state of Texas, though it has shown some signs of improvement, recorded 8,800 new confirmed cases on Thursday.

That anyone plays down the importance of masks is disturbing. But it's staggering that denialism comes from people in high places. How hard can it be: Stay clean and healthy, and keep your snot, saliva and other excretions to yourself. Do anti-maskers like Gohmert also reject soap and toilet paper?

At this stage in the coronavirus lottery, the rejection of masks expresses nothing so much as a death wish, which makes it not just irrational but unusual. Most of us want to stay alive as long as possible. Common to all animals, this baseline preference for life over death is nonpartisan, nonideological, noncontroversial.

Here's wishing Gohmert a speedy recovery -- of both his health and his senses.

About The Writer

Virginia Heffernan is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

(c)2020 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

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