Capitol to restrict tours, limit public access in coronavirus response

Tours expected to be suspended through the end of March

Public tours of the Capitol are expected to be suspended at the end of the week.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Public tours of the Capitol are expected to be suspended at the end of the week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 11, 2020 at 6:44pm

Tours of the Capitol are being suspended, in the latest response to the coronavirus.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has been discussing shutting down Capitol tours but as of Wednesday evening was awaiting confirmation from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to two House members.

She is looking to stop tours after Thursday through at least the end of March.

The formal announcements, expected from from the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, were coming amid growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and pressure from lawmakers and staff.

An estimated 3-5 million people from around the world visit the Capitol each year and the spring is a busy season for school groups, advocacy organizations and tourists to visit.

Capitol Visitor Center employees 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.

The red-coated tour guides in the Capitol Visitor Center have been raising the alarm for weeks about risks posed by lack of hygiene and social distancing best-practices among visitors.

Lawmakers and health and safety officials at the Capitol struggled to make the choice about limiting access to the Capitol as they weighed the threat of coronavirus against the desire to keep the Capitol open to the public.

“The nation’s Capitol building belongs to the people, which is one of the unique things about American democracy. And so I think there will be great reluctance to shut it down,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said Monday evening.

Some lawmakers feared that closing the Capitol would send a damaging message about the resilience of American democracy.

“It’s a step that we would be reluctant to take, [being] very cognizant of the fact that this is the people’s Capitol, the people’s House," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said Wednesday evening. "On the other hand, if what we’re doing is providing for a more dangerous or more susceptible environment, then we probably ought to take steps to do that.”

"Any announcements, if there are any announcements will be made by the speaker," House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren of California had said earlier when asked whether congressional leaders were considering limiting public access to the Capitol.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.