By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican U.S. congressman Louie Gohmert, who has steadfastly refused to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, said on Wednesday he had tested positive for COVID-19, leading at least three of his colleagues to say they would self-quarantine.
Attorney General William Barr, who testified to a committee hearing on Tuesday in which Gohmert participated, will be tested for coronavirus as a result, a Justice Department spokesman said.
Gohmert, a U.S. representative from Texas, where coronavirus cases have surged since the state reopened, said he tested positive in a pre-screening at the White House and would self-quarantine for 10 days.
"Now I need to self-quarantine," Gohmert said in an interview with Texas broadcaster KETK-TV. "It's really ironic, because a lot of people have made a big deal out of my not wearing a mask a lot. But in the last week or two, I have worn a mask more than I have in the whole last four months."
Republican Representatives Mike Johnson and Kay Granger and Democratic lawmaker Raúl Grijalva said they would self-quarantine after being in contact with Gohmert, according to statements from their offices or media reports.
"I'm self-quarantining until I take a test and then again until results are in. In the meantime, my work schedule and the lives of my employees are disrupted," Grijalva said in a statement. "This stems from a selfish act by Mr. Gohmert, who is just one member of Congress."
Masks, which health experts say help prevent coronavirus transmission, have become a symbol of America's bitter political divide, with some Republicans, including Gohmert, shunning them after President Donald Trump long refused to wear one in public.
Gohmert's announcement prompted new discussions among congressional leaders about coronavirus safety protocols and a declaration by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that all members and staff are now required to wear masks on the floor of the House. Previously, they had been encouraged to wear masks on the floor and required to wear masks in committees, although some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, did not comply.
During Tuesday's hearing, Committee Chairman Representative Jerry Nadler, a Democrat, scolded several Republicans, including ranking member Jim Jordan, for failing to wear masks. Gohmert said he wore a mask during the proceedings.
In a Twitter posting on Wednesday, Nadler wished Gohmert a "full and speedy recovery."
COVID-19 has killed more than 150,000 people in the United States, and almost 4.4 million have tested positive for the virus, according to a Reuters tally. Infection rates have begun to soar in recent weeks after states lifted earlier restrictions on social gatherings and travel.
Including Gohmert, 13 members of Congress have been diagnosed with or suspected to have COVID-19. The other 12 have all recovered and Gohmert said he was asymptomatic.
Republican Rand Paul in March became the first U.S. senator to contract the disease. He faced criticism from his colleagues after spending time walking maskless around the Capitol, even using its gym, while waiting for test results. After recovering, Paul, a physician, also shunned a mask, arguing that he is now immune.
Other medical professionals have said it is unclear whether a person can contract COVID-19 a second time or how long immunity may last.
Gohmert said he would now wear a mask. But when asked about mask policies, he told the broadcaster: "If somebody feels strongly that everybody should wear a mask then they shouldn't be around people that don't wear masks."
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Sarah N. Lynch, Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Bill Berkrot and Tom Brown)