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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 MurkowskiSenators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Murkowski says she will vote to confirm Barrett to Supreme Court on Monday McConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session 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 DurbinSenators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session McConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session Bipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning 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 CollinsTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Murkowski says she will vote to confirm Barrett to Supreme Court on Monday Biden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races 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 KingCollins says running as Independent 'crossed my mind' Susan Collins and the American legacy Coordinated federal leadership is needed for recovery of US travel and tourism 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 Health Committee chair asks Cuomo, Newsom to 'stop second guessing' FDA on vaccine efficacy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Two weeks out, Trump attempts to rally the base McConnell aims for unity amid growing divisions with Trump 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 WickerBipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Senate Republicans offer constitutional amendment to block Supreme Court packing Government efforts to 'fix' social media bias overlooks the destruction of our discourse MORE (R-Miss.), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Senators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day 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 BluntPower players play chess match on COVID-19 aid GOP to Trump: Focus on policy Low-flying helicopters to measure radiation levels in DC before inauguration 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 GrassleyOn The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Grassley: Voters should be skeptical of Biden's pledge to not raise middle class taxes GOP to Trump: Focus on policy 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 TillisPence adviser Marty Obst tests positive for COVID-19 Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Two Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 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 MurphyOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Senate Democrats seek to alleviate public concern about some results not being available on election night 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.”