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The lockdown room was a safe space for lawmakers under siege. Now some say maskless Republicans made it a coronavirus hot spot

Members of the US National Guard arrived at the US Capitol on Tuesday in Washington, DC.
Members of the US National Guard arrived at the US Capitol on Tuesday in Washington, DC.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON - As the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol last week, House members and some staff sheltered in a cramped, windowless room with no more than an arm’s length of distance between them.

The group seemed safe from the violence raging nearby, but inside they faced another threat. Several Republican members hunkered down, maskless, refusing to use the face coverings that their Democratic colleagues and staffers were begging them to wear as protection from the coronavirus that thrives in such low-ventilation indoor environments.

One Democrat, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, grew so angry that she left the secure room, concluding, according to an aide, that "we're not going to survive a terrorist attack to be exposed to a deadly virus."

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But many stayed behind - and some now think they were exposed. Nearly a week after the riot, three Democratic lawmakers who had sheltered in that room, including Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., a 75-year-old cancer survivor, have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The results added fuel to an already burning fire of rage that has enveloped Capitol Hill since last week's violence, as Democrats already blaming many of their GOP counterparts for inciting the mob that endangered their lives now are fingering them for selfish behavior that has jeopardized their health.

The outbreak - dubbed a "superspreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack" by Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, one of the Democratic lawmakers who tested positive - led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to impose stiff fines on members who don't wear masks.

"The second I realized our 'safe room' from the violent white supremacist mob included treasonous, white supremacist, anti masker Members of Congress who incited the mob in the first place, I exited," Pressley tweeted on Tuesday. "Furious that more of my colleagues by the day are testing positive."

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Several Republican lawmakers seen in a video refusing masks from a Democratic congresswoman did not respond to requests for comment, including Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Doug LaMalfa of California and Scott Perry of Pennsylvani.

Freshman Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who was also in that group, called it "absurd" to blame them and shifted it to Pelosi.

"It is absolutely ridiculous and insane to blame those of us who did not have COVID or symptoms," she said in an email. "The blame lies squarely on Nancy Pelosi and the positive COVID members bringing COVID in the Capitol! It's absurd to say they caught it during the safe room."

On Sunday, Brian Monahan, the attending physician to Congress, told members that they may have been exposed to someone with the virus while in "protective isolation."

The committee room lockdown had all the ingredients for a superspreader event, said Harvard University environmental health expert Joseph G. Allen. Overcrowding, hours indoors, people without masks and low ventilation.

"It's highly likely - and I think probable - that this is a superspreader event, and these lawmakers caught it from spending time in that room," Allen said. "I don't really believe in coincidences: All of a sudden you have three lawmakers," who had been taking appropriate precautions, "thrust into a situation with others who were ignoring that advice" and have since tested positive for the virus.

The lockdown room was, at first, a safe space - or so it seemed.

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Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Bradley Schneider, D-Ill., were among those in the gallery overlooking the House floor when Capitol Police screamed for them to duck. In the hallway one floor below, a violent mob pounded on doors and shattered windows. Then, they heard a single gunshot, the one that killed pro-Trump rioter Ashli Babbitt.

Speier, a survivor of gun violence, said she pressed her cheek against the cold marble floor and felt a sense of resignation that this might be it. As they were finally ushered to a secure location, Speier was shocked at how packed it was - "Like we were sardines," she said in an interview.

She turned to Monahan and said, "This looks like a superspreader event to me." She left the crowded space for a smaller anteroom, where for a time she sat across from Schneider.

Schneider said he looked at the crush of people around him and realized that escaping one threat meant exposing himself to another.

Schneider had been so careful. His wife has a health condition that makes her high risk if she contracted the coronavirus. He drives the nearly 12 hours from his home in eastern Illinois to Washington rather than fly.

On Tuesday, he announced he had tested positive.

"I am now in strict isolation, worried that I have risked my wife's health and angry at the selfishness and arrogance of the anti-maskers who put their own contempt and disregard for decency ahead of the health and safety of their colleagues and our staff," he said in a statement.

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On Tuesday, Speier wrote a letter signed by 66 of her colleagues imploring House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to require Republicans to wear masks. Pelosi took matters into her own hands: Anyone not wearing a mask on the House floor will be fined $500 for their offense and $2,500 for their second.

"This is not a political statement, this is about whether or not you're going to use what could be a deadly weapon, which is your saliva particles, to infect someone else who could become gravely ill," Speier said in an interview. "It's a reckless, selfish act."

Inside the secure room, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., stood with some Democratic women who were anxious that Republican lawmakers weren't wearing face coverings. Blunt Rochester borrowed a stack of disposable masks and began approaching everyone, asking if they would like a clean mask.

"I just felt like I can't stand here mad, I have to try and help," she said in an interview.

When she approached the group of maskless Republicans and offered them masks - the moment that was captured on video - their rebuffs didn't affect her.

"I just want to have impact. I don't care if it looks pretty. My goal was not about shame, it was about help," she said. "And to the extent that, mind you, we all have to take responsibly for ourselves and each other, I just wanted to act instead of be in my anger."

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The Washington Post’s Ben Guarino and Alice Crites contributed to this report.