Lawmakers looking for guidance on coronavirus

As Congress awaits emergency funding, Capitol Hill denizens take precautions aplenty

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., talks with reporters after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call))
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., talks with reporters after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call))
Posted March 3, 2020 at 6:17pm

Sen. Lindsey Graham fist-bumped a young man on the Senate subway Tuesday instead of offering a handshake and Sen. Bill Cassidy offered squirts of hand sanitizer to reporters peppering him with questions, two signs of how Congress is adjusting to the potential threat of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 spreading on the Capitol Hill campus.

As lawmakers continue to negotiate a deal to fund a multibillion-dollar response to the coronavirus disease, they’re also thinking about the health and safety of themselves and their staff if a coronavirus outbreak were to emerge in Washington, D.C.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has invited House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Schumer to a joint operational briefing Wednesday on the response to the virus in the Capitol community. The meeting will be focused on “keeping the Congress open for the People’s business,” according to staff.

McCarthy told reporters Tuesday that the Capitol is susceptible to the spread of the virus and COVID-19 because the building attracts so many people from all over the world.

“Similar to a lot of places in the country, there are people from all around the country coming here every single day. This is a contagious disease. This is something that can multiply and go rapidly. You have interaction [on Capitol Hill],” McCarthy said.

Employees of both chambers have received messages from the Office of the Attending Physician instructing them on frequent hand-washing and that there is no need for healthy people to wear masks. But that hasn’t stopped staffers from stocking up on masks at the Senate stationery store.

The clerk at the Dirksen Senate Office Building stationery store seemed tired Tuesday and said it had been a busy morning with a rush on Purell and masks. She told CQ Roll Call that the store had sold out of masks and was trying to order more, but she was unsure whether they’ll arrive since shortages are emerging nationwide.

At a House Legislative Branch Appropriations hearing Tuesday, Attending Physician Brian Monahan told lawmakers that he is in frequent contact with House and Senate leadership about the coronavirus. He said it will be up to leadership to determine how to continue operations of Congress if an outbreak were to occur nearby.

“There are various prerogatives leadership may employ with regard to access to the Capitol and limitations,” Monahan said.

He stressed that any closing or limitation of access to the Capitol would be part of a multipart “matrix of a decision process” driven by external situations, such as federal government closures and District of Columbia government decisions.

When asked if there has been discussion of closing the Capitol complex to the public, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said that would be a “dramatic” course of action. He said any restrictions imposed, if needed, should be done in a bipartisan, nonpartisan way for the purposes of protecting the health of the American people.

“We will be listening to the scientists and the medical professionals, public health experts that tell us what’s appropriate,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Monahan said the way his office handles information sharing and prevention of the virus would shift if a vaccine is developed. He said distribution of a vaccine to the community would need to be organized and details of that have yet to be determined.

“I think we are adequately prepared by way of resources to protect our first-response personnel and provide that service to the Capitol community for any number of scenarios that might arise,” Monahan said.

Physician’s message may need a boost

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin wants to hear more from Monahan about a long-term plan.

“If he has one, he hasn’t told us,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters.

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips said Problem Solvers Caucus members discussed the need to protect themselves and the institution in the car on the way to the White House for a coronavirus briefing with Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday.

“I’m not aware at this moment what our contingency plans are for the invocation of transmission within Capitol Hill,” Phillips said. “And by the way, if it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s probably going to happen here with 535 people flying to every nook and cranny of this country and coming back every week.”

Specifically, Phillips said the members discussed the need to identify and articulate what the policy is for preventing the spread of the virus on Capitol Hill. While it’s a good thing that many people who have contracted the virus are asymptomatic, that’s also bad for containing the disease because people may be unknowingly spreading it.

“I think there’s a palpable sense of it is certainly around already and probably getting closer,” Phillips said.

House leadership and House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren “are thinking through all of the possibilities in terms of how to make sure that we can keep everybody safe and healthy — you know, our employees our staff, our visitors, the everyday Americans who come to the Capitol,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said. “And we look forward to them continuing to come to the Capitol.”

The red-coated tour guides and other employees in the Capitol Visitor Center are on the front lines in terms of interacting with massive groups of visitors from all over the world and introducing them to the Capitol.

Anecdotal evidence from a few guides who spoke to CQ Roll Call suggests that there has been a drop in what is usually a busy season of bus tours of Chinese tourists. In early February, the large organized groups that typically would descend on the CVC dried up almost completely.

Guides have been told that the technique used to sanitize the headphones used for tours would be ineffective against the coronavirus. It is not yet clear what the next steps are to keep the headsets, passed around between visitors, clean in the case of an outbreak.

On Tuesday, four new hand sanitizer dispensers were placed in the CVC, and a source told CQ Roll Call that the ones closest to the entrance were heavily used by visitors. Cleaning staff have also begun routinely wiping down the door handles and automatic door buttons with disinfectant during the day, a new practice.

Retiring the political handshake

When asked how he is responding to constituents who visit and want to shake his hand or give him a hug, Cassidy said Louisianans are well-prepared for the alternative of bumping elbows because they may have been to a crawfish boil.

“At a crawfish boil,” he said, reaching his elbow out to meet the elbow of a reporter, “that’s how you shake hands.”

“Because you’ve got crawfish all over your hands and you want to keep eating crawfish. So you bump elbows,” Cassidy explained.

Durbin is taking the fist bump route, coining what he called “the CVB, the Coronavirus Bump.”

He said he’s using the fist bump as an alternative to handshakes, “which politicians do instinctively,” Durbin said.

Cassidy, a medical doctor, had been concerned about spreading germs even before the coronavirus emerged in the United States. During the Senate impeachment trial, when many of his colleagues were coughing and sniffling, he and his neighbor, Georgia Republican David Perdue, had their back-row desks stocked with hand sanitizer. Cassidy put a large bottle atop his desk, almost as a beacon to encourage other senators to use it.

On Tuesday, Cassidy was prepared again, pulling a bottle of Purell out of his bag and offering dollops to reporters. He also showed off some Lysol wipes he uses to clean the area around him when he flies.

“I’m a gastroenterologist; think about what gastroenterologists do all day long. I am almost like Lady Macbeth, washing my hands,” Cassidy said. “That’s before this happened. And I carried the Purell with me before it happened.”

Lindsey McPherson, Mary Ellen McIntire, Chris Marquette and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.