Congressional leaders downplay possibility of Capitol closing due to coronavirus

Congressional leaders downplay possibility of Capitol closing due to coronavirus
© Greg Nash

Congressional leaders downplayed the possibility that the Capitol would have to close or restrict the public’s access in response to the coronavirus following a Wednesday briefing with Capitol security officials.

Given how the Capitol is a bustling hub for hundreds of lawmakers traveling from all over the country and tourists around the world, members of Congress are taking precautions to prevent an outbreak and prepare for what happens if the coronavirus hits their own workplace.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMcCarthy urges Democrats to pull surveillance bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter How lawmaker ties helped shape Fed chairman's COVID-19 response MORE (D-Calif.), who invited the other top House and Senate leaders to hear from the officials charged with maintaining the Capitol complex, said that the focus is on “continuity of operations.”

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When asked if she was confident that the Capitol and its public galleries can be kept open, Pelosi replied, “At this time, yes.”

Lawmakers in both parties have been concerned about a coronavirus outbreak in the Capitol, a workplace that may be more susceptible to transmission of the illness than other places because of the frequent travel of members of Congress.

Handshakes — a gesture that lawmakers typically extend countless times a day with each other and their constituents — are now frequently being replaced with elbow bumps or other ways that don’t involve touching other people’s hands.

“If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen here with 535 people flying to every nook and cranny of this country and coming back every week who love shaking hands,” Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsBipartisan senators introduce bill to make changes to the Paycheck Protection Program The Memo: Activists press Biden on VP choice Biden asks Klobuchar to undergo vetting as potential running mate MORE (D-Minn.) said this week after returning from a White House meeting on coronavirus with Vice President Pence. 

“I’m seeing a lot of elbow punches at the moment” instead of handshakes.

Capitol officials have already started taking steps in recent days to help people fend off potential germs.

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Additional hand sanitizer stands have popped up in Capitol hallways for public use. And in restrooms in the Capitol building, there are now signs instructing people “the right way” to wash hands. 

“SCRUB your hands for at least 20 seconds,” the sign reads. “Need a timer? Hum the ‘Happy Birthday’ song from beginning to end twice.” 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyJustice says it will recommend Trump veto FISA bill McCarthy urges Democrats to pull surveillance bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter MORE (R-Calif.) stressed that the briefing was to ensure that Capitol Hill denizens would be prepared in the event of an outbreak, but pointed to the steps already being taken to help reduce any spread. 

“There are things we can do. If you noticed, we have more units out for cleaning of the hands, from janitorial service we are cleaning more often,” McCarthy told reporters. “I mean, these are things that people should be doing at home as well.”

“The best thing to do is making sure we're prepared, what are the best practices. It's better to have that all prepared and never have to use it but we will make sure everybody's communicating,” McCarthy said.

Pelosi said in a "Dear Colleague" letter to fellow Democrats on Saturday that the Chief Administrative Officer, House Sergeant At Arms, Attending Physician and Architect of the Capitol are "engaged in a comprehensive, coordinated response to mitigate any impact on Congressional operations."

A memo from Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving to lawmakers and staff recommended practical prevention techniques such as encouraging people to cover their mouths when coughing, disinfect surfaces and stay home if they are sick. Irving also recommended that congressional offices consider making contingency plans in the event of a widespread outbreak.

Congress has moved in the past to restrict access to the Capitol in response to an outbreak. 

During the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918, the House and Senate public galleries were closed for about a month in an effort to prevent the disease’s spread. Washington, D.C., was particularly hard hit by the Spanish influenza with hundreds of deaths, according to the House historian.

The coronavirus has already affected at least one legislative body in 2020.

At least 23 Iranian lawmakers have contracted the coronavirus, as well as a number of other top officials. One recently elected member of parliament died from the virus.

Vice President Pence also briefed House Republicans and Democrats in two separate meetings Wednesday, part of regular visits to Capitol Hill from administration officials on the virus. 

House Democrats left the briefing with a somewhat more positive tone toward the administration’s response, though they still faulted a slow start. 

“His comments seemed to be pretty well aligned with where we are on a lot of this, just terms of focusing on the testing, making sure that it’s in place, but you can't go back and make up for the fact that this administration was completely flat-footed,” said Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeePelosi makes fans as Democrat who gets under Trump's skin House to consider amendment blocking warrantless web browsing surveillance Bipartisan bill aims to help smallest businesses weather the coronavirus crisis MORE (D-Mich.).  

Scott Wong and Peter Sullivan contributed.