Capitol Hill’s exposure to the coronavirus is growing, and reporters were asked to do their part as measures to combat the virus that causes COVID-19 escalated significantly around the Capitol on Monday.
At least three current and one former staffer have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and more than half a dozen lawmakers are self-quarantining after coming in contact with individuals who’ve tested positive, contributing to growing concerns on Capitol Hill. The Senate press galleries, overseen by the sergeant-at-arms, passed along worries from Senate leadership about large groups of reporters huddling around lawmakers and those lawmakers, in turn, walking and talking with groups of reporters in tight packs.
“In some cases, lawmakers may be more reluctant to conduct lengthy sessions with large press scrums due to health concerns,” read a Monday memo to reporters from the press galleries.
The House is in a district work period that’s been indefinitely extended. The Senate remains in session as it prepares to consider a coronavirus stimulus package.
While no explicit press restrictions are in place, reporters have been asked to follow commonsense advice like frequent hand-washing. They were also instructed to provide lawmakers a wide berth and even keep a distance between each other.
Congress has 194 members who are 65 years or older and would be classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “at-risk” populations for contracting and experiencing dangerous cases of COVID-19. Many of those lawmakers have a wide array of known health issues, including recent surgeries, cancer treatments and heart attacks.
Several Capitol press galleries sent letters to media members Monday asking them to take extra precautions when in the Capitol.
The House Radio and TV Gallery asked news organizations to send only one person to briefings and removed every other chair to allow for more distance between people.
The Senate Press Gallery restricted where reporters could sit in the gallery, asking them to not set up next to each other on desks and to refrain from sitting in a row of couches in the center of the often busy corridor.
There were no new restrictions on conducting interviews and reporting in the halls of the House or Senate, but leadership expressed concerns over large scrums of reporters because of how they can sometimes gather in tight quarters.
The White House is also imposing new press restrictions, in cooperation with the White House Correspondents’ Association. The group created a temporary seating chart for the briefing room so that reporters would not sit in close proximity to one another.
The White House press secretary’s office said in a memo Monday that those who do not have a seat on the updated seating chart or who are not part of the day’s in-house press pool will not be permitted access to the White House complex, effective Tuesday.
The memo said press members who do qualify for access must undergo a basic health screening, including temperature readings, before they can enter the White House.
The White House had already started temperature checks on reporters over the weekend and had turned away those running a fever, according to press pool reports.