Delta variant postpones K Street’s full return

With caveats and precautions, lobbyists still attend in-person meetings and fundraisers

After a brief push to return to in-person lobbying, many K Street firms are pulling back, wary of the COVID-19 resurgence brought on by the delta variant.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
After a brief push to return to in-person lobbying, many K Street firms are pulling back, wary of the COVID-19 resurgence brought on by the delta variant. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 14, 2021 at 5:00am

Lobbying firms have pushed back official reopening dates, and some events have switched to virtual with the resurgence of COVID-19. But K Street denizens say they still are attending in-person meetings, heading to their downtown offices and gathering for campaign fundraisers.

The fundraising solicitations to events benefiting lawmakers’ reelection coffers come with caveats now. 

“Things are still happening in person, but what you see now is the invites are really clear to say, ‘We invite our fully vaccinated friends, and we are following COVID protocols,” said Democratic lobbyist Cristina Antelo, who runs the bipartisan firm Ferox Strategies. “Many events are outside on a patio, and they often encourage you to remain fully masked unless you are actively eating or drinking.”  

On the cusp of Memorial Day back in May, most lobbyists were gearing up for a more normal return to their in-person work life, as they began to suit up and reemerge for meetings on Capitol Hill and sessions with clients and colleagues. The rise of the delta variant, however, has prompted most firms to postpone requirements for employees to return to the office, and many K Street denizens said most of their advocacy activities and team meetings remain virtual. 

But they crave extra human interactions and are seeking to break out of the confines of their home offices. 

Kathryn Lehman, a partner at Holland & Knight, said back in May that she wasn’t eager to return to the traffic jams of K Street life. Now, she’s reconsidering. 

“I am actually to the point where I wouldn’t mind going back to seeing people,” said Lehman, a former House GOP leadership aide. “It’s easier to do the meetings virtually. I just would like some human contact.”

One day last week, Lehman had five back-to-back online meetings scheduled with people on the Hill, something that would have presented logistical challenges in real-life sessions. “There are still some upsides to this, but I’m just ready to go roam the halls or hang out at the Capitol Hill Club.” 

Work-life balance

Even as lobbying firms have postponed office returns, numerous lobbyists said they were venturing in at least part of the time, in search of more separation between their work and home lives. 

“I come into the office just, frankly, to create a routine, more than anything else,” said Ivan Zapien, a partner at Hogan Lovells. 

Ditto for Paul Thornell, a lobbyist with Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas.

“For me, personally, it’s similar to going to a gym to work out versus working out in your basement,” Thornell said in a phone interview as he walked to work recently. “As a matter of preference, I benefit from going from one place to the next and having a defined space.”

Thornell, a Democratic lobbyist, said that in June and early July, he noted an uptick in in-person functions and meetings. But some of that subsided a bit with the rise of the delta variant, combined with the August recess. 

“I have yet to go into a congressional office for a meeting,” he said, “but I have met with staff outside of congressional offices to grab coffee or lunch. Those kinds of interactions are a little bit more frequent.”  

In-person fundraising events, Thornell said, are likely to continue happening outdoors into the fall, so long as the weather allows. But virtual ones aren’t going away.  

Doug Pinkham, who runs the Public Affairs Council, said last week that his association, which represents policy and government relations professionals, had just made the decision to cancel a planned in-person conference slated for October. The group canceled because some of the participants have young children and were “nervous about traveling and exposing themselves to COVID even though they personally are vaccinated.” (No vaccines have been approved so far for children under 12.)

In addition, Pinkham said, some big companies still have restrictions on their employees’ nonessential travel. His group is still deciding about another event in October, planned for California. It may shift to virtual, he said. 

“We’re monitoring California COVID case numbers, registration and cancellation trends and, of course, possible corporate travel restrictions,” he said.   

‘Serious’ masking

Brian Pomper, a partner at one of Washington’s biggest lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said that even though K Street isn’t back to normal, many lobbyists are coming into the office, attending events or traveling for business. His firm has postponed a full return to the office, but vaccinated employees, such as Pomper, can work in person. He goes in two or three days a week, he said. 

He recently donned a “serious mask” and hopped on a plane for Mexico to attend a client conference, Pomper said.   

“I hadn’t been outside the country since COVID started,” he said. At the meetings he attended, masks were required. “They would take everybody’s temperature when we entered or left a room,” he added. 

“When I came home, my wife insisted I take a COVID test,” he said. He tested twice, both negative.

Antelo says she has several trips slated for this fall, including destination fundraisers for the Democratic committees. “Any of these, I assume, can be canceled,” she said. 

Antelo and her Ferox Strategies colleagues are mostly working out of their offices near the Capitol complex but will shift to remote later this week for something unrelated to COVID-19: a planned Sept. 18 rally in support of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rioters who have been jailed.  

“I’ve already established that on Sept. 17, Ferox will work from home,” she said. “That’s my bigger prediction, that the 18th means we’ll have to do more security.”