As the coronavirus continues to spread, public health officials are asking people to practice social distancing, which means avoiding mass gatherings and coming into contact with others only when absolutely necessary.
But what are lawmakers supposed to do? They have to craft legislation to address the pandemic, yet many of them are in the most vulnerable age group (60 and up).
That’s why instead of flying, Sen. Sherrod Brown loaded up his SUV Monday morning to make the six-hour drive from Cleveland, Ohio, to the U.S. Capitol, where the Senate is working on a package of aid measures to address the coronavirus pandemic currently threatening world health.
The Ohio Democrat said he voted early this morning in Cleveland and encourages others to do so, despite coronavirus fears. (The Ohio presidential and congressional primaries are Tuesday. Gov. Mike DeWine on Monday recommended postponing them until June.) During the trip in his Jeep, Brown spent most of the time talking with hospital administrators, while someone drove him to D.C.
For Brown, the purpose behind the road trip is twofold. While he wants to set an example for how Americans should be practicing social distancing, the 67-year-old also wants to limit his own exposure and that of his wife, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Connie Schultz, who is asthmatic and more vulnerable to the virus’s effects.
During the six-hour drive Brown talked to Heard on the Hill about “public opinion baths,” his favorite book and what the Senate needs to do to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
HOH: Can you tell me what kind of car you’re in?
BROWN: Yes. Glad you asked that question. It’s a Jeep Cherokee made by union workers in Toledo, Ohio. I was ready for that question. I wear my suit made by union workers in Cleveland, Ohio.
HOH: What made you decide to take this road trip?
BROWN: First of all, a lot of us begged [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to pass the [coronavirus aid bill] last week. The House was on the verge of passing it. [Treasury Secretary Steve] Mnuchin and [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi were close to an agreement. We should have waited around till Friday. McConnell had some business, apparently, back in Kentucky, but he works for all of us and works for the taxpayer. So we should have stayed and done it last week.
As I flew home, I realized I shouldn’t be riding in planes. My wife is asthmatic. She’s in her 60s, and asthmatic, and it’s important. I mean, she’s healthy in every other way. But that’s important.
We’ve got to get help for people who are laid off, people who have lost their jobs, small businesses that can’t make a go of it because of this virus, especially when we’ve had closings of schools and businesses. And [it’s] important that we don’t force low-income Americans without sick days to choose between going to work and potentially sickening or infecting somebody else or staying home and losing the hundred dollars a day they’re making that could make them unable to pay their rent and end up getting evicted. So all of those need to be part of this package. Protect people from eviction. Protect people from foreclosure. Protect people from lost income. And especially protect people’s health in the workplace.
HOH: How confident are you that the American people can make the necessary sacrifices to their way of life to make sure we get this right?
BROWN: First of all, the people see the president not take this seriously. And if you look at polling numbers, you can see that — this is kind of unbelievable, but it’s true — Democrats take this much more seriously than Republicans. Because the president has waited week after week after week to take this seriously.
Almost two years ago, I said to the president, “Why are you firing Adm. [Tim] Ziemer and his entire global threat staff, the staff whose job it is to surveil around the world and see potential viral or bacterial outbreaks or parasitic outbreaks that could affect all of us around the world, including in our country.”
So when you have the person in charge not taking it seriously, it’s pretty hard to get Americans to take it seriously. I think people are, more and more. Even the president started to take it seriously, but in an uneven sort of way. I mean, he’s still not really taking it as seriously as my Republican governor [DeWine] is taking it. But I think over time.
Too many people are in bars and restaurants, out in big groups. In Ohio, those places have now been closed down by the governor. It’s clear that we all need to sort of reassess all of this short term, medium term and long term.
HOH: Because a lot of members of Congress are in that vulnerable age range, how concerned are you about coronavirus potentially spreading through Congress?
BROWN: We all should be concerned for our staff, for ourselves, for the people we represent. And that means not so much when we’re out, thinking, “How do I keep from getting infected by that person over there?” The question is, “If by chance I have it.” We all should think this way.
I’m not implying in any way that I think I have it. But if there’s a chance anybody has it now, we all should think, “I’ve got to be careful not to infect somebody else.” So that means not just protecting yourself, but protecting others. It’s a little bit of the golden rule. It wouldn’t hurt living that way for all of us anyway, whether religious or not.
HOH: So does this mean that you will not be flying for the foreseeable future?
BROWN: I don’t have any plans to fly anytime that I know of. I mean, I can’t say never. I don’t know. But I am going to err on the side of caution and protect my family and staff and voters I come into contact with, but also protect them from my being exposed in many cases. Members of Congress and senators are exposed to — we are around a lot of people without thinking much about it in the past, of course.
HOH: You guys are very social, political people who are constantly meeting and shaking hands. I’m sure that has to be in the back of your minds now.
BROWN: There’s a wonderful Lincoln quote. Lincoln’s staff wanted him to stay in the White House and win the war and free the slaves and preserve the union. And Lincoln said, “Nah, I gotta go out and get my public opinion baths.” A number of us in Congress do that more than others, but it’s more risky now for everybody.
BROWN: It’s a movie about workers and how workers should have more power in the workplace.
I want people to understand, making recommendations when people are at home anxious, some perhaps without sick days, some perhaps about to lose their jobs, I don’t ever make light of that, so it’s possible that that tweet or Facebook post might have come across a little tone-deaf. My first concern is that we fix these problems that have been created by Trump’s lack of preparedness and by this virus and by the cuts in the CDC.
One of the best books I’ve ever read is a book called “Christ in Concrete,” written by Pietro di Donato, written the same year as “Grapes of Wrath.” And I believe it actually won some fiction awards. It’s sort of an urban “Grapes of Wrath.” It’s a terrific book about a guy, an immigrant, who fell in a construction project and his family had to piece together just enough money to live on because he didn’t have workers’ comp. You don’t have the things that we have now. It really is such a good lesson in worker rights.
HOH: Is there anything that you would like the American people to understand that maybe we don’t quite realize yet about what we’re going through?
BROWN: Listen to the public health officials. Don’t listen to Trump. Don’t listen to [Vice President] Pence. They have been misleading and cavalier and dismissive. Listen to [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony] Fauci. Listen to [Ohio Department of Health Director Amy] Acton in Columbus, Ohio. Mike DeWine’s been good. I’m not putting him in that same category.
Listen to hospital administrators. If you’re financially able to, help local food banks.