Capitol’s COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview

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Congress is experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases among lawmakers while doing exactly what Americans are being warned not to do for Thanksgiving this year: gathering together after traveling from all over the country. 

In the last week alone, seven members of Congress have tested positive for COVID-19, with three others quarantining after exposure. 

Three of those lawmakers with COVID-19 cast floor votes alongside their colleagues this week before learning they had the virus, underscoring the risks for everyone on Capitol Hill when cases in the U.S. are spiking rapidly.

The outbreaks come as the Capitol physician’s office began offering expanded virus testing this week for House members and staff to comply with new guidance for travelers issued by the mayor of Washington, D.C. The testing, however, is not mandatory.

Lawmakers continue to at times struggle with masks and social distancing, with notoriously extroverted members having trouble resisting gathering in groups on or near the floor. And more than eight months into the pandemic, some are still not wearing masks correctly with their noses and mouths fully covered. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a stern reminder while presiding over the House floor on Wednesday that lawmakers must adhere to health guidelines. She repeated not just once, but twice for emphasis, that lawmakers and staff cannot enter the chamber without a mask under a requirement she issued in late July.

“It is essential for the health and safety of members, staff and U.S. Capitol Police to consistently practice social distancing and to ensure that a safe capacity be maintained in the chamber at all times,” Pelosi said.

“To reiterate, the chair views the failure to wear a mask as a serious breach of decorum.”

The COVID-19 cases roiling Capitol Hill came as the U.S. reached a grim milestone on Wednesday of 250,000 deaths from the pandemic at a time when the nation has recorded more than 100,000 new cases daily since the Nov. 3 elections.

With more people gathering indoors as the fall weather grows colder, health experts are pleading with Americans to stay home and cancel their usual plans to travel and gather with family and friends for the holidays.

Some lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19 while still back home, while others learned of their diagnoses after arriving in Washington this week. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) even delivered a Senate floor speech on Monday — a day before learning he had tested positive — urging people to adhere to social distancing measures and wear a mask. But like other members of both parties in both chambers, Grassley, 87, did not wear a mask while speaking before the cameras.

Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) both voted on the House floor on Monday night and subsequently tested positive over the next two days. Grassley also voted on the Senate floor on Monday but missed his first votes since 1993 on Tuesday to quarantine. 

A spokesperson for Perlmutter, who was still asymptomatic upon learning of his results on Tuesday, said that he took a test after learning he was exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Newhouse said Wednesday that he “began to feel a little run down” the day before and had mild symptoms. 

Reps. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) and Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) similarly all announced in the last few days that they had tested positive, following Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) late last week. Bustos has cast votes by proxy this week, while Walberg, Lamborn and Young did not vote.

Young, who at 87 is the House’s oldest member, revealed that he was hospitalized and “had not felt this sick in a very long time.”

Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who would have been in Washington for new member orientation, also tested positive last week. 

Still others exposed to the virus were in quarantine in the last few days: Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) as well as Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).

The coronavirus-related absences in the Senate had practical impact beyond health concerns when Republicans lacked enough votes to advance Judy Shelton’s Federal Reserve Board nomination on Tuesday.

At least 20 House members and six senators have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, while two additional lawmakers had presumed cases that weren’t officially confirmed at the time. 

Eight months since the first lawmaker tested positive, Democrats and Republicans are still pursuing divergent approaches to managing COVID-19 in the Capitol.

The Democratic-led House requires masks on the floor — a mandate prompted by then-asymptomatic and occasionally maskless Rep. Louie Gohmert’s (R-Texas) diagnosis — and allows lawmakers to cast votes by proxy if they can’t do so in person.

House Democrats conducted their leadership elections virtually on Wednesday using an app. House Republicans, who have resisted proposals like proxy voting, held theirs in-person at a hotel near the Capitol the day before.

In the Senate, masks are strongly recommended on the floor but not required.

That led to a tense argument on the floor between Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who objected to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) not wearing a mask while presiding over the chamber within six feet of floor staffers.

Pelosi initially planned to host a traditional dinner for incoming new members on Friday evening in the Capitol. But her office ultimately canceled the in-person plan and offered the meals to-go following a bipartisan social media backlash.

Dozens of House Republicans resisted wearing masks on the House floor for months until the requirement went into effect over the summer. Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) made clear the resentment lingers, tweeting last week that she spoke out during freshman orientation to declare that masks are “oppressive.”

However, Greene did comply with the rules and wore a mask while attending House orientation. 

In the meantime, negotiations over an economic relief package remain at a standstill while the pandemic hits close to home for members of Congress. The two sides continue to be far apart on the size of a package and on the particulars of policies like unemployment insurance, funding for state and local governments and legal protections from COVID-19 related lawsuits. 

Asked Wednesday if Democrats were concerned about the coronavirus in the Capitol, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) replied: “We all are.” 

Tags Charles Grassley Cheri Bustos Chuck Grassley Coronavirus COVID-19 Dan Newhouse Dan Sullivan Don Young Doug Lamborn Ed Perlmutter Louie Gohmert Mark Pocan Masks Nancy Pelosi Sherrod Brown Steny Hoyer Ted Cruz Tim Walberg

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