Congressional leaders are planning to keep the Capitol Visitor Center and public galleries in the Capitol open despite growing anxiety about the spread of coronavirus in the U.S., but they say that decision is based on the lack of cases in the Washington, D.C., region so far.
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that leaders and health and safety officials at the Capitol are prepared with contingency plans if a lawmaker or staffer falls ill with COVID-19.
“Of course, then they’ll do the tracking as to who that person had contact with,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer made those comments the same day the House approved an $8.3 billion supplemental spending bill to aid in addressing the pandemic. After the 415-2 vote, the measure headed to the Senate.
While the House passed the package in quick order, the debate was not without its highlights, like when Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., wore a gas mask on the floor to highlight concerns about transmissions of the virus.
Attending Physician Brian Monahan told lawmakers Tuesday that his office has what it needs to handle the threat of coronavirus.
“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.
Hoyer said there are no plans in place that would allow the House to legislate remotely if members fall ill with COVID-19 and social distancing measures are put in place.
“We have no plans at this point in time, and we are hopeful, of course, that everybody here at the Capitol remains coronavirus-free,” Hoyer said in an interview Wednesday.
Unlike other types of threats or potential disasters, the goal in the case of a coronavirus outbreak on Capitol Hill would not be to bring lawmakers together in an alternative location to reconstitute but to keep those who are ill away from healthy people, all while attempting to conduct the business of the country.
“It would be a challenge, obviously, to have people all go home when the policymakers need to be responding to the crisis,” Hoyer said.
The most recent case of Congress convening outside their traditional chambers was in 2011 when the Senate convened briefly in the Postal Square Building, which houses the National Postal Museum, after a major earthquake in the Mid-Atlantic. The Senate buildings were all evacuated and under evaluation for damage and safety issues.
The pro forma session was held “in a room that is prepared for off-site briefings in the event of an emergency,” said Sen. Chris Coons, who gaveled in the session from a folding table in front of a Senate seal that had been pinned to a curtain. The session began about an hour late and lasted just 22 seconds.
After a Wednesday afternoon meeting of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer about how to ensure continual operation of Congress as the virus spreads, the top leaders downplayed the threat to members and staff and highlighted precautions being taken.
Pelosi said there was “unity” at the meeting and agreement on “how we want to protect the Capitol and have continuity of operations for the Congress of the United States.”
“It’s better to have that all prepared and never to have to use it. But we want to make sure everybody is communicating,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy told reporters that Congress will not need to shut down because of coronavirus fears and that the Capitol will remain open to the public, striking a more positive tone than at his Tuesday news conference, when he told reporters 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.
“There is no one in D.C. at all that’s been diagnosed with coronavirus; there’s no one here,” McCarthy said Wednesday after the briefing.
He said the meeting was to ensure that the leaders are prepared and aware of best practices and pointed to proactive efforts already underway in the Capitol complex to prevent the spread of disease.
Lawmakers and employees have been reminded by the Office of the Attending Physician about frequent and proper hand-washing technique and how to disinfect surfaces and find alternatives for handshakes.
“If you notice, we have more units out for cleaning of the hands,” McCarthy said. “From janitorial services, we are cleaning more and more often. I mean, these are things that people should be doing at home as well.”
“Essentially, the floor of the Congress is like a petri dish. We all fly in these dirty airports, we touch and selfie everyone we meet, and then we congregate together,” Gaetz said after a separate coronavirus briefing for House Republicans and before the House vote.
Late Wednesday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee contacted Capitol Hill offices to alert them that a group of conference participants from New York who visited lawmakers in recent days had recently come in contact with an individual who contracted coronavirus.
“The group has been placed on the self-quarantine list” reads the email sent to Capitol Hill offices.
Spring is a major time for advocacy groups to do “fly-ins,” in which people from across the country convene to meet with lawmakers about specific issues.
Chris Marquette contributed to this report.