These senators are grounded in DC as coronavirus disrupts travel

Fewer flights, self-quarantine rules make travel more difficult

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the Hart Building on Tuesday. She's been in Washington for an extended period because of coronavirus-related travel difficulties.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the Hart Building on Tuesday. She's been in Washington for an extended period because of coronavirus-related travel difficulties. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 8, 2020 at 12:56pm

Springtime in Alaska is uniquely Alaskan.

Average temperatures hovering near or below freezing begin to rise, slumbering creatures — including mosquitos that can grow as wide as a thumbnail — come out of hibernation, and people take bets on when frozen river-ice thick enough to hold a semitrailer will crack and float away.

Break up, as it's called, is a season many Alaskans look forward to all winter as they get ready for compressed days of summer where, in places like Fairbanks, the midnight sun never sets but skips like a stone across the horizon for a brief period of dusk before returning to the sky.

This year GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski is likely to miss the break-up at her home near Anchorage — she’s stuck in Washington.

“The buds are starting to pop, and people are getting out; I’m homesick,” she said. “But as homesick as I am, I don’t want to be responsible for bringing the sickness to people that I love. And so, I’m here for at least a little bit longer.”

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Murkowski, and some of her colleagues from other harder-to-access parts of the United States, have been facing difficult travel patterns and some haven’t been home in weeks, opting to remain in Washington.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 76,000 Americans, is causing havoc for the nation’s airlines as air travel grinds to a halt and flights have been canceled en masse.

On Thursday, the Transportation Safety Administration screened 190,863 airline passengers. On the same day last year, 2,555,342 passed through TSA checkpoints.

[Roof rescue: Ducklings go from stuck at the library to swimming in the pool]

Murkowski’s trip home could take as long as 12 hours, and her flight choices have been greatly reduced, she said. And she probably won’t head north until she has more time to spend at home.

Murkowski’s fellow Alaskan Sen. Dan Sullivan gives a regular “Alaskan of the Week” speech on the Senate floor.

On Thursday, in which he celebrated Pulitzer-winning Alaska journalist Kyle Hopkins, Sullivan said he had been back in Alaska but remained hunkered down with his family in Anchorage as he self-quarantined. He said he even delivered an impromptu backyard version of his trademark speech last week, highlighting frontline workers.

If Murkowski or Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono were to return home, they would also face the two-week quarantine and by the time that period ended, Hirono said she may have to turn around and head back to Washington, depending on the Senate schedule.

The Senate was called back this past week by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and is expected to remain in session for the next few weeks. Hirono said she’s remained in Washington since February and expects to stay until the Memorial Day recess later this month.

“Of course I’d like to go home, but I stay in touch,” Hirono said. “It hasn’t slowed me down.”

The Hawaii Democrat said she does a lot of interviews with local TV stations via Skype or another teleconferencing technology. “That would be the same situation where I’m in Hawaii that I have to use those platforms to communicate,” she said.

Hirono's fellow Hawaiian senator, Democrat Brian Schatz, did not respond to requests for comment. He did not cast a vote in the Senate this week. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, also didn't cast a vote because he stayed home, according to a spokesman.

Sanders’ Vermont counterpart, Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, has been in the Washington area for the past couple weeks. It’s easier for him to work with his Appropriations Committee staff and with other senators on appropriations and the next coronavirus aid bill here in Washington, his spokesman David Carle said.

“His rural home in Middlesex, Vt., doesn’t have very good broadband connections, making all these many many teleconferences more difficult when doing them from there.”

Montana Sen. Jon Tester's home is in the town of Big Sandy with a population of about 527 people. He posted a video about his haul back to the nation’s capital.

His day started at 1:30 a.m. with a roughly four-hour drive to Missoula so he could catch a half-full 8 a.m. flight to Denver, before making his connection to an eerily empty Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where he landed at 4:49 p.m.

“One of the hazards of the coronavirus is there’s fewer flights flying out of Montana as most of you already know,” a tired-looking Tester said in his living room before he departed his journey. “At any rate, we’re on our way. Wish us luck.”