Why does Johnson think masks are 'probably' unneeded on the Hill?

"I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing. I think around here, we probably won't have to," Ron Johnson said. Seriously?
Image: Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2019.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Despite the many risks and health hazards, the U.S. Senate was back at work yesterday, to the chagrin of some of its members. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put it last week, "If we're doing oversight work or we're passing a relief bill, then you can credibly make the case we are essential employees. But there's no reason to bring the Senate back to make conservative radio hosts happy. That's a dereliction of duty."

It's a fair point. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears to have called senators back to Capitol Hill, not to tackle legislation related to the coronavirus, but to move forward with consideration of a seemingly unqualified judicial nominee (Justin Walker), a seemingly unqualified Federal Reserve nominee (Judy Shelton), and a literally unqualified director of National Intelligence nominee (John Ratcliffe).

That said, if senators are going to be back in session, there are several steps people on the Hill can take to keep people safe. For example, everyone should obviously be wearing masks to help prevent the spread of infections.

Evidently, some members don't quite see it that way.

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) walked onto the floor maskless (Paul tested positive for coronavirus in March). "I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing. I think around here, we probably won't have to," Johnson said. "They're not pleasant to wear, are they?"

As the Politico report made clear, most senators, including McConnell, wore masks yesterday, "pleasant" or not. So, too, did reporters and congressional staffers. [Update: see below.]

All of which made Johnson's perspective that much more difficult to understand. Senators "probably won't have to" wear masks on Capitol Hill? Why not? It's not as if the number of COVID-19 cases in Washington, D.C., have seen a sharp decline of late.

What's more, there are a half-dozen sitting U.S. senators above the age of 80. By July, literally half the chamber will be made up of members who are 65 or older. The coronavirus adversely affects people of all ages, but there's ample evidence that the virus can be especially dangerous to seniors, who are at a heightened risk.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but Ron Johnson himself turned 65 last month. If the conservative Wisconsinite is under the impression that masks are "probably" unnecessary on Capitol Hill, perhaps he should reconsider?

Postscript: In mid-March, Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, went further than most in arguing that the coronavirus crisis should not shut down the economy, even temporarily. As part of his case, the Wisconsin Republican told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "[W]e don't shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It's a risk we accept so we can move about."

This was a bad argument, too.

Update: It looks like Johnson changed direction and was seen today wearing a mask.