'Life is a risk': Sen. Johnson asymptomatic, still opposes mask mandates after testing positive for COVID-19

’Life is a risk’: Sen. Johnson asymptomatic, still opposes mask mandates after testing positive for COVID-19

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OSHKOSH, Wis. (CBS 58) -- One of Wisconsin's two U.S. senators announced he has tested positive for COVID-19, marking the the third positive test among the Senate GOP this week.

On a conference call on Saturday, Oct. 3, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told reporters he's not experiencing any symptoms, so his positive test came as a surprise.

"I never developed any symptoms. I still have never developed any symptoms. I feel fine. I feel completely normal," Johnson said.

State Republican lawmakers made a move this week to fight the state's mask mandate, filing court documents backing a lawsuit against Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. When asked about the optics of this move at the state level, Johnson said he's keeping his stance on personal choices.

"I'm not for mask mandates. I'm for individual responsibility," Johnson said.

Wisconsin's only GOP U.S. senator said his chief of staff learned he had tested positive after they spent time together on Sept. 14. Johnson said he quarantined in Oshkosh for 14 days after that, testing negative twice during that time before returning to Washington D.C.

He was tested again on Friday on his way to a fundraiser hosted by the Republican Party of Ozaukee County, where he said he wore a mask and kept his distance from other attendees. After the fundraiser ended, he received a call that he had tested positive. He said he got the test as a precautionary measure after another GOP member of the U.S. was diagnosed with COVID-19.

"Friday morning, I was on a conference call with some of the senators and we found out that Mike Lee had tested positive. On that call, a couple senators said, 'Maybe I'll go get checked,'" Johnson said.

Johnson became the third GOP senator to test positive, following Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. But he said he does not blame anyone for his positive test result.

"I don't care where I might have got it from. I really have no idea," he said.

Following the three senators testing positive, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) announced a move to delay the Senate’s return for two weeks until Oct. 19.

Johnson said he does not believe the diagnoses will put the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick, in jeopardy. He said McConnell is prepared to ask senators to vote electronically from home or whatever is necessary to confirm Barrett.

"With the vote of Amy Coney Barrett coming up, one thing we decided internally with our staff was this would be my last weekend to do any events whatsoever ... I did not want to take a chance," Johnson said.

Mordecai Lee, professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said that's not a surprise.

"I think Mitch McConnell and Sen. Johnson are going to try to pass (Barrett's confirmation) as fast as possible, no matter what. They don't care if half the Senate is positive ... I think they're going to get this through even if it's the afternoon of Election Day. Even if it's just before the polls start closing, they are going to pass it," Lee said.

Wisconsin's other U.S. senator, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, announced on Twitter on Saturday that she had tested negative for COVID-19.

"Given the outbreak in the Senate, I was tested on Friday and I am pleased to report that my result was negative. I again urge everyone to wear a mask and practice social distancing to protect the health and safety of yourself and others," she wrote.

At an event Saturday morning in Milwaukee, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore and Milwaukee's mayor wished Johnson well.

"I really, really want the senator, and I want the president, I want the First Lady to have a full recovery. So, my prayers are with them and their families," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters.

"I've traveled back and forth to DC with Sen. Johnson and so I feel like I know him personally. (He's) part of the Congressional family, so I wish him well. This is a treacherous disease, and not only does it cause premature death, but sometimes debilitating impacts actually. So certainly my thoughts and prayers are certainly with him and with anybody who catches this virus," Moore said.

Moore also mentioned the impending nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

"I'm not sure how that plan will be pursued given the numbers of people who have been exposed in the Senate. We'll have to wait a few days and see what are the results of other people who participated in the superspreading Rose Garden event," Moore said.

Johnson said he does believe Republican senators have been taking the virus seriously.

"I've done everything I can to try to avoid it and extremely isolating myself from society, which I don't think we should be doing. You set risks in life. Life is a risk," he said.

Trump had two rallies scheduled in Wisconsin for Saturday but had to cancel them after testing positive. Johnson said prior to the cancellations, there had been discussions about masks and social distancing at the rallies.

"My guess is the president's going to want to continue campaign, and again, it will be up to individuals to take their own personal responsibility in terms of how we want to handle the situation. There's a reason to have these events outdoors," Johnson said.

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