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Anxiety over coronavirus grows on Capitol Hill

Pressure is mounting on congressional leaders to cancel votes and restrict activity in the Capitol to avert a coronavirus outbreak.

Several lawmakers appearing at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference and Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) gatherings in the Washington, D.C., area interacted with individuals who have since tested positive for the highly contagious virus.

Both Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said over the weekend they would self-quarantine after coming into contact with a person at CPAC who had tested positive.

Cruz, who had a brief interaction and shook hands with the individual, said he is not showing any symptoms of coronavirus, but would remain in Texas “out of an abundance of caution.”

Gosar, a dentist, said both he and his staff came in contact with the individual. The congressman said he would shut down his Washington office this week and follow Congress’s “Tele-commute plan.”

Over the weekend, Congress’s medical office sent lawmakers an update on the CPAC encounters that supported the self-quarantines and suggested the chances of transmission were low.

“The public health authorities assessed each person’s contact with the ill individual,” reads the notice, which was obtained by The Hill. “The overall findings are considered to be a ‘low risk’ to acquire SARS-Cov-2 (coronavirus) infection and they were advised on courses of action specific to their unique level of exposure.”

Others are taking self-imposed precautions, as well.

Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, opted to skip a leadership retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland over the weekend, with a spokesperson citing a need to protect “people in our families who are particularly vulnerable,” Politico reported.

As of Monday morning, more than 500 patients in the United States had been diagnosed with the virus across 34 states, according to a tally being kept by The New York Times.

Senate and House lawmakers were expected to travel back to Washington, with votes still scheduled for Monday afternoon and evening. And lawmakers across the country were boarding planes Monday morning to return to the nation’s capital, including those from coronavirus hot-spots including Seattle.

But a sense of anxiety permeated Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers — House Democratic leaders and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — are in their 70s and 80s, travel constantly around the country for district visits and campaign events, and meet regularly with constituents and other interest groups.

“I don’t see how you keep asking a large group of elderly folks to fly on planes back and forth over the next few weeks,” said one House aide who’s been monitoring the situation on Capitol Hill.

Added a GOP lawmaker: “The most vulnerable population are people over 70 … which is all of the Democrat leadership and most chairmen, and a third of the U.S. Senate.”

Still, many leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers believe closing the Capitol at this moment could send the wrong message to an already jittery public, setting off a wave of panic. On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled more than 1,600 points on falling oil prices related to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Business should carry on,” the GOP lawmaker said.

A second staffer said that while leaders have given no signal of shuttering the Capitol, individual lawmakers are making their own contingency plans.

“Many offices including ours are preparing for some kind of total office building shutdown, shifting to telework, etc.,” the aide said.

Last week, the top congressional leaders received a partially classified briefing on the threat to the Capitol complex.

Afterward, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the Capitol Police assured the lawmakers that the Capitol is well-secure, while the message from the Capitol physician’s office largely related to simple precautions related to personal hygiene, such as washing hands and sneezing into tissues. Around the Capitol, illustrated signs have popped up in the bathrooms instructing visitors on proper hand-washing procedures.

“It’s not about testing everybody who comes into the building. That’s not realistic,” Pelosi said Thursday. “But it is also, hopefully, that the message that goes out more globally is that people will be more responsible about their own preventative measures.”

She added: “Some of that sounds very basic and mundane, but it does prevent the spread.”

House Democratic leaders are expected to huddle Monday afternoon, ahead of the evening’s votes, where the coronavirus issue will almost certainly be front and center. Meanwhile, leadership offices are reaching out to members to encourage preparations in the event the Capitol is closed down.

“Offices are putting together emergency telework plans … and assessing IT needs, and encouraging off site meetings or phone calls,” said a third staffer.

Updated at 11:42 a.m.

Tags Coronavirus Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Paul Gosar Ted Cruz
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