Capitol marks two years since closing to public from COVID-19

The U.S. Capitol is seen from the Supreme Court on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.
Greg Nash

Saturday marks two full years since the Capitol closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mask mandates in the Capitol have been relaxed in recent days as the omicron-fueled peak of the pandemic has subsided in the Washington, D.C., region. But Capitol officials are still treading carefully when it comes allowing tourists return to the building.

Officials have cited both the pandemic and security concerns from last year’s violent insurrection as to why there’s been hesitancy to reopen the building to the public.

But after two years of shutting off the Capitol to visitors, lawmakers are clamoring for letting them return.

“It is time that the U.S. Capitol open once again to visitors,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said this week.   

“Given the importance of the Capitol to D.C.’s tourist economy, it is time for the Capitol, like the rest of D.C. is already doing, to reopen to visitors,” Norton said.

Two Democratic aides confirmed to The Hill that bicameral discussions are underway for a phased reopening of the Capitol. But such a reopening is likely at least weeks away.

The House and Senate sergeants-at-arms originally made the decision to suspend Capitol tours two years ago in response to the pandemic.

But since then, the idea of letting hundreds of people flow into the building all day has become much more fraught.

A recent debate on the House floor between Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) exemplified the tensions that have cast a dark cloud over the Capitol since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by a mob of former President Trump’s supporters.

Scalise brought up the recent Senate passage, by unanimous consent, of a resolution authored by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) that expressed support for reopening the Capitol and Senate office buildings to the public.

“The Senate Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement to do it. I would just ask that we do the same and show the American people that the people’s House is open to the people of the nation,” Scalise said.

“I think all of us agree that the American public’s access to the Capitol ought to be as fulsome as possible,” Hoyer replied, adding that the Capitol physician and sergeants-at-arms in both chambers were looking into a reopening.

Hoyer then said that he had “great concern” about a recent resolution adopted by the Republican National Committee to censure Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) for participating in “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse” by serving on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“If we are telling people in this country that Jan. 6 was legitimate political discourse, we are going to have great concerns about opening up this Capitol for the safety of our members, for the safety of the public who wants to visit, and for the safety of our staff,” Hoyer said.

“I would ask my friend: Does he believe that Jan. 6 reflected legitimate political discourse?” he asked Scalise.

“I have been very clear from the very beginning, anyone who broke into this Capitol ought to be held accountable and is being held accountable,” Scalise said.

“More arrests have been made than probably all of the cities where people were burning down cities across America in the summer. That is something that ought to be addressed, and the Democratic Party doesn’t want to talk about that. They just want to talk about Jan. 6,” Scalise charged.

In contrast to Congress, other entities with large crowds in the nation’s capital and around the globe have reopened to the public.

Some Smithsonian museums have been closed recently due to pandemic-related staff shortages, but are set to reopen. Earlier this week, the Smithsonian announced that it is dropping its mask requirement for visitors in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent guidance stating that masks are no longer required in many parts of the country with reduced COVID-19 transmission.

And the Capitol’s counterpart in London, the British Parliament, is open to visitors, albeit with reduced capacity and a mask requirement.

While official Capitol tours have been suspended for the last two years, members of Congress have still been spotted showing small groups of guests around the building.

The Senate has also allowed some small staff-led tours in limited areas of that side of the Capitol complex in recent months.

But it’s all still a far cry from the hundreds of tourists who once milled about the Capitol Rotunda and other historic rooms in the symbolic seat of U.S. democracy each day. And the viewing galleries of the House and Senate chambers have remained empty of tourists for the last two years, in contrast to before the pandemic, when members of the public could watch live floor proceedings.

During Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this month, a handful of guests invited by the White House sat in a section of the House chamber viewing gallery with first lady Jill Biden. But the galleries were otherwise only occupied by members of Congress who were spaced apart as a pandemic precaution, as well as the Capitol press corps.

After Biden’s address, Republicans cited his declaration that “COVID-19 need no longer control our lives” upon introducing a resolution calling to fully reopen the House wing of the Capitol complex to the public.

“We proudly consider this a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But to truly serve the people, we must make this institution accessible to the public,” top House GOP leaders and Republicans on the House Administration Committee said in a joint statement.  

Tags Adam Kinzinger Capitol COVID-19 measures Donald Trump Eleanor Holmes Norton Jill Biden Liz Cheney Steny Hoyer Steve Scalise Tourism

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