Capitol tours to be suspended due to coronavirus

Capitol tours to be suspended due to coronavirus
© Greg Nash

The House and Senate sergeants-at-arms are preparing to announce that they will suspend tours of the Capitol amid growing concerns about the coronavirus. 

Two sources told The Hill on Wednesday that the announcement will be made soon.

"The two sergeant at arms ... are preparing to announce that they will stop tours of the Capitol due to the coronavirus," one of the sources said.

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According to a Capitol official, tours are expected to be halted as soon as Friday. That would last until the end of March.

The House sergeant-at-arms did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the decision. 

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThis week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting House conservatives voice concerns over minority rights during remote hearings House slated to vote on FISA before end of the month MORE (D-Md.) indicated earlier Wednesday that ending tours was something that could be considered. 

"We haven't yet come to grips with whether or not we ought to close down the Capitol in terms of visitors. But that certainly is something that we'll have to consider, and that may be a step we need to take. It's a step that we would be reluctant to take. We're very cognizant of the fact that this is the people's Capitol, the people's house," Hoyer told reporters on Wednesday. 

"On the other hand, if what we're doing is providing for a more dangerous or more susceptible environment then we probably ought to take steps to do that. And we're going to be talking about that," he added. 

The move comes as anxiety grows on Capitol Hill about the virus, including a constant swirl of rumors about what, if any, steps would be taken to limit access to the building, where lawmakers and hundreds of tourists keep close quarters on a regular basis. 

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There were multiple meetings this week to discuss efforts to try to prevent lawmakers and their staff from being infected with the virus, including a powwow with House Democrats and the Capitol's attending physician.

The physician also met this week with the chiefs of staff to discuss preventative steps, a meeting that left some frustrated. 

"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 in the room 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."

Top leadership, including Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBottom line This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting Women suffering steeper job losses in COVID-19 economy MORE (D-Calif.), have shot down taking more drastic action like closing the Capitol altogether or changing the congressional schedule. 

“We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” Pelosi said at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday. 

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. 

Several lawmakers have had to self-quarantine in recent days after interacting with individuals who tested positive for the virus.

 Mike Lillis and Juliegrace Brufke contributed