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Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day

Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day
© Greg Nash

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiFor Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' MORE is set to go back to Alaska for the first time since March 8. 

The bad news? Under the state's rules, she'll have to self-quarantine for the entire Memorial Day recess until the Senate returns to Washington on June 1.

“I’m in quarantine for the entire period, so ask me when I come back how my time in Alaska went,” the GOP senator said, while noting she would first be able to get a test at the airport in Anchorage. 

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Murkowski’s plans are just one example of how senators are grappling with how to return back to their home states amid the coronavirus pandemic, where some states are starting to lift social distancing restrictions while others remain under wide-reaching stay-at-home orders. 

The decisions are particularly acute in the Senate, where lawmakers have not been routinely tested while together in the Capitol with a reduced staff and media presence, leaving them in the dark about potential exposure as they prepare to board planes, or in some cases drive home, for the weeklong break. 

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinOvernight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said he spoke with the Capitol physician about if it would be better to drive back to Illinois, versus fly. 

“My concern is bringing this infection home to my wife,” Durbin said. “We’ve debated what if I drove out, from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, is 16 hours, so I would stay overnight somewhere. ... We think an hour and a half on a plane is a safer experience.” 

How, or if, senators would be able to return to their states has become a topic of discussion around the Capitol. Senators were overheard discussing their flight plans, with one saying they had been told by an airline that they could also purchase the middle aisle seat to help ensure social distancing. 

Public health experts have warned that older individuals, in particular, are at risk for severe cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As part of its guidance on traveling during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that “older adults and people of any age who have a serious underlying medical condition are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.” 

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In the Senate, the average age is approximately 62, and approximately half of the chamber is 65 or older. 

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsFor Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief Limbaugh falsely says Biden didn't win legitimately while reacting to inauguration Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief MORE (R) said that she would be on a direct flight back to her home state of Maine that will be “very sparsely filled.” While the state has a 14-day quarantine period for travelers returning to Maine, Collins said she would be exempt from that because her position as a U.S. senator makes her an essential employee. 

“I don’t think I have been exposed up here. I’ve been extremely careful. ... [But] I would prefer to be tested. I think it would be great if we could all be tested before we go,” she said. 

The availability of testing, and whether senators should be getting tested, has also been a running point of debate among lawmakers and with the Capitol physician’s office. 

Sen. Angus KingAngus KingBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Angus King warns of 'grave danger' of Trump revealing classified information Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster MORE (I-Maine), who self-quarantined in a Maine bed and breakfast and then a garage apartment for part of the last recess, warned that members should be tested, “otherwise, we’re disease vectors.” 

Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Tenn.) raised the issue of testing privately during a closed-door GOP lunch and again publicly, saying that members should be tested before they go home “to make sure they don’t spread the disease from a virus hot spot into every section of the country.”

Alexander subsequently had to self-quarantine after a staff member tested positive, but he’s not the only one pushing to ramp up testing availability on Capitol Hill. 

Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerSenators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department Wall Street Journal: GOP Electoral College 'stunt' will hurt US, Republican Party Bipartisan group of senators: The election is over MORE (R-Miss.), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February For Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief MORE (R-Ky.), told reporters that he thought lawmakers and the physician’s office had done a good job in implementing social distancing procedures and preventing an outbreak on Capitol Hill 

“[But] I personally, I would have made a different decision with regard to testing,” he said. “Many of us are going back every weekend, and I would feel ... more of a comfort level having been tested before going back.”

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief A Day in Photos: The Biden Inauguration GOP senator calls Biden's COVID-19 relief plan a 'non-starter' MORE (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and a member of leadership, said he has been in talks with leadership and the physician’s office on how to expand testing around the Capitol. 

“I think it doesn’t make sense for everybody working here not to be tested on some routine basis, and for the members who are traveling even more important that we don’t allow this to become a place that we either collect [the coronavirus] from all over the country or send to out all over the country needlessly just because we don’t know,” Blunt added. 

Some lawmakers are planning to restart limited visits in their home states.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyFinance Committee vote on Yellen nomination scheduled for Friday Democrats swear in three senators to gain majority Yellen champions big spending at confirmation hearing MORE (R-Iowa), who is third in the line of succession to the White House, said he’ll be making the 15-hour drive to Iowa for the recess. Once there, he will be holding small meetings in six counties that comply with both regulations set by his governor and the CDC. 

“I want to get back to my 99 county meetings. ... We’re trying to do things within the rules where we have no more than 10 people on a meeting,” he said. “We’re going to have dialogue with people that basically have wanted to talk to me, as opposed to an open town meeting.”  

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSchumer becomes new Senate majority leader Democrats see Georgia as model for success across South McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-N.C.) also said that he plans to drive, which he estimated would take about 5 1/2 hours. 

“Now that we're in phase two, having the opportunity to get out a little bit more and meet in smaller groups, working a lot with the local elected officials in the state legislature,” Tillis added. 

Asked if he was concerned about traveling without knowing he had been exposed in the Senate, Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Democrats shoot down McConnell's filibuster gambit Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE (D-Conn.) replied, “I assume I’m exposed while I’m here.”  

“I’ve been making visits in Connecticut throughout this crisis,” he added, “so I think I made the decision early on to accept a slightly higher level of risk, and I think that’s just part of what comes with the job.”