Coronavirus takes toll on Capitol Hill

Greg Nash

The coronavirus is taking a toll on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers begin reshaping day-to-day life and scramble to try to stop the spread of the quickly moving disease. 

For many, the matter is increasingly hitting close to home. There are growing reports that constituents have contracted the virus, several lawmakers have self-quarantined and one staffer announced they tested positive for COVID-19. 

While most lawmakers did not publicly project any fears, many quietly questioned how long it will be until the first member of Congress tests positive for the virus.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The Hill that it “wouldn’t’ surprise me” if a lawmaker contracts the disease, adding, “we are obviously very public figures, in touch with a lot of people, literally and physically.” 

The coronavirus is more dangerous to older people, and the average age of House members is 58, while the average age of senators is 63.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who is a doctor, outlined a laundry list of steps he is taking to try to protect himself.

“I’m going to do what everybody is advised to do — sneeze into my sleeve. I’ve already gotten my flu shot. I carry with me Clorox wipes to clean my phone. I also have Purell, which I wash my hands regularly,” he said during a Friday interview with Fox Business Network.

Adding to the fear and panic is how little is known about the disease, including how the virus spreads and how it affects individuals who test positive. 

In some ways the virus has already changed Capitol Hill at a basic level: Instead of handshakes, elbow bumps are preferred if contact must be made. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) walked by a group of reporters and greeted them with a phrase that is in increased circulation in the building: “Stay healthy.”

On Friday, the hallways in the Capitol complex appeared almost deserted besides a member, staffer or reporter wandering towards food courts. The Rotunda, normally packed with tourists, was also largely empty save for a police officer and spill over from a press scrum from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) nearby office. 

It was a U-turn from Thursday when a group of visitors was given a tour just outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was spotted leading a small group around the Capitol, including taking them up a senators-only staircase.

Any tours — public, member or staff-led — are now on hold until April 1 under the new restrictions. The House and Senate sergeants-at-arms also announced they would block the public from accessing the Capitol or the office buildings unless it’s official business. Any visitors will have to be escorted by a Senate staff, with a limit placed on the group size. 

Signs posted on many congressional offices either alerted visitors that their offices were now closed, or that they were not shaking hands.

The House Financial Services Committee announced that it is canceling all of its March hearings. The House Veterans Affairs Committee is letting staff telework “due to the public health risk posed by the COVID-19.”

The decision to limit access to the Capitol comes after days of pressure for congressional leadership to take action over concerns that keeping the building running as normal was the exact opposite of the advice coming from public health officials. 

A message to congressional offices this week by the Capitol’s attending physical specifically recommended lawmakers avoid handshakes, hugs, selfies and other “close direct contact,” including large crowds. But over the past week, that’s been next to impossible in the Capitol where hundreds of tourists brush up against lawmakers on a routine basis. 

Pelosi was spotted taking a selfie with tourists this week, and a woman stopped Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in the basement to talk about how she always saw him on TV. 

Even as they stressed taking preventative measures, senators were frequently spotted in close proximity with reporters and staffers. Senators, for example, left a briefing with administration officials about the virus only to quickly jump into gaggles. 

“You know that a month ago, I might have said whoever the nominee of the party, we will enthusiastically embrace. And then I changed it to whoever the nominee is the party will enthusiastically elbow-bump. But somebody said to me, no, when you elbow bump you get close to the person. So, forget any physical contact greetings. Bow Eastern style,” Pelosi told reporters, to laughter. 

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), standing closer to reporters than the recommended six feet, said that he was still shaking hands. 

“I’m not changing anything at all,” he said. “Number one, everybody’s not going to get the virus. Number two, everybody’s not going to die.”

The architect of the Capitol, J. Brett Blanton, issued a memorandum that laid out steps for members of Congress and staff to take amid the outbreak. One suggestion in particular stood out: “Refraining from jokes.” 

“We respectfully request refraining from posting joking signs (such as biohazard) on cubicles of colleagues,” the memo reads. 

Many lawmakers signaled they are increasingly aware of the close quarters they keep with staff, reporters and their own colleagues.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) repeated “personal space, personal space, personal space,” as she tried to make her way to a second-floor elevator off the Senate floor.

And Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), spotting a group of reporters waiting for him, appeared to make a joke about the tight space. 

“No chance of catching coronavirus here,” he said as he headed out of the Capitol, trailed closely by a staffer, his security detail and members of the press. 

Still, even with tourists temporarily banned from the building, lawmakers are at risk of contracting the disease from one of their colleagues.

To many, votes in both chambers are viewed as a possible breeding ground for the virus to spread because lawmakers use the time to circulate on the floor or pigeonhole an obstinate colleague. Members of leadership have shot down trying to vote remotely.

“Obviously, the first time a member of Congress is diagnosed, if that should happen with coronavirus, then it’s going to put into very stark relief the difficult questions and decisions that will have to be made here,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer before the new restrictions were imposed. 

Adding fuel to those concerns, Capitol Hill got its first confirmed case of the coronavirus — a staffer in Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) office. 

The announcement sparked a domino effect among her colleagues with several quickly announcing they would also close temporarily their D.C. offices including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). 


Tags Bill Cassidy Chris Murphy Coronavirus Deb Fischer Denny Heck Dick Durbin John Kennedy John Thune Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Maria Cantwell Martin Heinrich Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey Ted Cruz Tom Cotton

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