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Incoming lawmakers arrive for orientation amid worsening pandemic

Incoming lawmakers arrive for orientation amid worsening pandemic
© Greg Nash

Incoming House lawmakers arrived in Washington, D.C., for new member orientation on Thursday facing a unique set of circumstances compared to their predecessors amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members traveling to D.C. this year have been forced to get acquainted with their new colleagues while wearing face masks and taking other safety precautions due to the worsening health crisis.

While safety protocols were put in place ahead of orientation, including social distancing measures and daily health screenings, lawmakers acknowledged that the incoming members would face hurdles getting acclimated to Congress that previous classes haven’t had to endure.

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"The receptions, the opportunities to sit down in close proximity to your new colleagues and get to know them – [it's] going to be much different this year, especially with the increased vigilance in and around Capitol Hill,” Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisMcCarthy supports Cheney remaining in leadership amid calls for her to step down More than half of House GOP commits to vote for resolution calling for Cheney to step down from leadership GOP divided over Liz Cheney's future MORE (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee that is charged with organizing the orientation, told The Hill.

New members were advised to take a COVID-19 test before traveling to D.C. for the multiday event, with at least one incoming lawmaker, Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson (R), testing positive. Hinson's office said she would quarantine at home in Iowa and would participate in the orientation remotely.

The incoming members were additionally required to take their temperature in their hotel rooms and fill out a health survey disclosing whether they had any coronavirus symptoms before participating in orientation events, which have thus far been held at a hotel near the Capitol.

Newly elected members are also tasked with familiarizing themselves with new colleagues despite attendees wearing face coverings that can partially obscure their identity. At least one incoming lawmaker, Rep.-elect Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), sported a face mask with her name sewn on it, helping others identify her.

The freshman class is arriving in D.C. amid a worsening pandemic back home for many incoming lawmakers, with new cases across the country topping 150,000 on Thursday, according to a count by The Washington Post. The U.S. has reported more than 10.5 million cases since the start of the pandemic, with 242,577 Americans killed, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. 

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The rise in cases has prompted cities to roll out new guidelines and advisories for businesses and residents alike, with New York City ordering bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. each night starting Friday. Chicago has also announced a 30-day stay-at-home advisory for residents starting Monday, amid other restrictions.

In D.C., officials reported 128 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, down from the single-day increase of 206 cases reported the previous day — the highest number of new cases in a 24-hour period since May. The District has recorded 18,507 cases and 657 deaths due to the disease this year.

With rising cases, there have been some discrepancies between parties on how to best tackle safety protocols for the new member orientation.

Democrats on the House Administration Committee voiced concerns about a lack of testing for the event, while GOP lawmakers on the panel said they would provide a health monitoring app to help the incoming members track potential symptoms.

Despite entering Congress under irregular circumstances, the incoming freshman said they largely feel comfortable with the safety safeguards put in place.

“There has never been a time that I haven't felt safe,” Rep.-elect Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) told reporters. 

Rep.-elect Cori Bush (D-Mo.) added she felt it was critical that new members take precautions but be in Washington when needed to serve their soon-to-be constituents.

"People are hurting, so you know, we can take precautions to do what we need to do to make sure that we're in place to take care of the people that voted us in,” she said.