Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day

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

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits GOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas 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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinFrustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight 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 CollinsDemocrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Unemployment claims now at 41 million with 2.1 million more added to rolls; Topeka mayor says cities don't have enough tests for minorities and homeless communities 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 KingMemorial Day weekend deals latest economic blow to travel industry Bipartisan senators introduce bill to make changes to the Paycheck Protection Program Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day 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 AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSenate GOP chairman criticizes Trump withdrawal from WHO Trump: US 'terminating' relationship with WHO Soured on Fox, Trump may be seeking new propaganda outlet 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 WickerGOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day Hillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns MORE (R-Miss.), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe Overnight Health Care: Trump says US 'terminating' relationship with WHO | Cuomo: NYC on track to start reopening week of June 8 | COVID-19 workplace complaints surge 10 things to know today about coronavirus 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 BluntWashington prepares for a summer without interns GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day 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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley, Leahy urge Roberts to permanently air Supreme Court arguments Democrats broaden probe into firing of State Department watchdog Former Romney strategist joins anti-Trump Lincoln Project 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 TillisOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits Tillis campaign releases first general election TV ad emphasizing 'humble' roots 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 MurphyMissouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Khanna says President Trump threatening violence against US citizens; Trump terminating relationship with WHO Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day 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.”