Senate

Elbow bumps, Spock salutes: How Congress is dealing with coronavirus

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The Capitol’s attending physician reached for a pop culture reference as he advised a packed room of House Democrats on how to protect themselves from the coronavirus: Be like Spock.

The noncontact greeting — known as the Vulcan salute — is just one piece of advice that lawmakers are getting as they seek to protect themselves and their staff from contracting the coronavirus.

Concerns about the virus’s spread within the Capitol have sparked days of tensions, and a notable decrease in handshaking, in a building where members keep close quarters with thousands of tourists and visitors.

While lawmakers are publicly shooting down talk of drastic action, they say they are being more careful in their own routines.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, noted that he went to a breakfast fundraiser on Tuesday but didn’t shake any hands.

“[It’s] changing the way we do business. I had a fundraising breakfast this morning and didn’t shake hands with anybody,” Durbin, who is running for reelection, said with a laugh. “Which I think is just common sense.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has stepped up his own hand-washing and canceled an overseas trip to Brussels and London next week.

“I think we all ought to be aware. … I wash my hands a lot, a lot,” he said, jokingly backing away from a group of reporters who were standing closer than the recommended 6 feet.

Asked if he felt safe within the Capitol, Shelby, who is 85, replied: “Well, I’m here.”

The coronavirus threat has become increasingly real for the Capitol Hill community in recent days after Washington, D.C., got its first confirmed cases and six lawmakers self-quarantined after interacting with an infected individual.

Part of the increased health concern for Congress is the advanced age of most lawmakers. Two-thirds of senators are older than 60 and the average age of House members is nearly 58.

Older adults, especially those with existing medical conditions, are the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans older than 60 to avoid crowds — advice that’s virtually impossible for members of Congress to follow. At least 28 people have died from the virus in the United States.

There have been notable changes around the Capitol as elbow and fist bumps, or placing a hand over your heart, have replaced handshakes as the preferred greeting.

Both House and Senate offices have been told to brush off their teleworking plans and hand-sanitizer machines have popped up around the building, with staff seen taking at least three into the bowels of the Senate on Tuesday.

“Our office has bottles of Purell everywhere,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is 79. “I just had a meeting with a group from Ireland; I waved to them.”

Leahy added that he was considering potentially closing his offices for a few days to give his staff a chance to practice teleworking.

Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said they have been taking extra steps to sanitize the Capitol complex in an attempt to stop the spread of germs.

“You’ll notice new bowls at the security screening stations, you’re going to also notice we’re going to see more hand-sanitizing stations, and I’m going to give you the same advice that I just gave to my fellow members of Congress: You’re going to see more signs in the bathroom about how to properly wash your hands,” Davis said.

Lawmakers seem to think it’s just a matter of time before one of them is diagnosed with the coronavirus, as they travel to and from their home states, most on planes, and keep up with constituent meetings in D.C..

“We are obviously very public figures, in touch with a lot of people, literally and physically, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened,” said Durbin.

Rumors that the House or Senate could extend their recesses to prevent lawmakers from getting the virus have bounced around the Capitol.

“My takeaway: This is really bad and it’s going to get worse, the medical infrastructure is ill-prepared for this, and there’s no system reporting back to the Capitol who’s been infected, so we’re basically hoping people self-report,” one source, who attended a meeting with chiefs of staff and the attending physician, told The Hill.

“People were also asking for guidance on whether the Capitol should be shut down and seemed frustrated that they’re not getting anything,” the source added.

Congressional leadership has tried to shut down that chatter, acutely aware that any drastic action taken by lawmakers could spark further panic both on Wall Street and across the country.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday pushed back against calls from within her own conference to allow lawmakers go back to their districts.

“We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” she said at a closed-door meeting, borrowing a line uttered moments earlier by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), a Navy veteran.

Asked about extending the upcoming recess, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters that the question was coming from the press, not fellow lawmakers.

“I haven’t heard that discussed except by you guys,” Thune told reporters.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who warned on Monday that this wasn’t a time for “fear” — sidestepped a question on Tuesday about changes to the Senate’s schedule.

Not every lawmaker appears to be taking extra precautions. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said he would not self-quarantine after being potentially exposed to an individual with the coronavirus.

He was spotted leading a large tour around the Capitol on Monday night. Another lawmaker spotted Gohmert heading to the floor and said to a reporter, “I’m staying away from Gohmert.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he had eight meetings with constituents scheduled for Tuesday and at least 12 planned for next week.

“The risk is the low factor. If it becomes more risky, I would judge that a particular time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he was “concerned” about the virus but indicated it wasn’t impacting his thinking about a potential trip in May.

“No, you want to shake hands?” he asked a reporter. “This is the town of hysteria.”

—Scott Wong and Juliegrace Brufke contributed 

Tags Chuck Grassley Coronavirus Dick Durbin James Inhofe John Thune Louie Gohmert Mikie Sherrill Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Patrick Leahy Richard Shelby Rodney Davis

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