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Congress ‘struggling’ with questions of office logistics, travel and hygiene

Some members complain of lack of institutional standards for working amid outbreak

One day after returning to Capitol Hill amid a rapidly evolving coronavirus epidemic, Congress continued to grapple with how to run its offices as well as best practices for interacting with the public.

Attending Physician Brian Monahan made clear at Tuesday morning’s Democratic Caucus meeting that there is no recommendation not to fly, for instance.

[Unsettling day provides little coronavirus guidance for Congress]

But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz cited conflicting messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the risk to vulnerable populations.

“We’re struggling,” the Florida Democrat said. “We have a very diverse and disparate work environment. But we also have a responsibility to make sure that we are able to effectively represent our constituents and make sure they get the information that they need.”

The CDC has stated that the people most at risk of COVID-19 are “older adults” and those with “serious chronic medical conditions” such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease.

Congress has 194 members who are 65 years or older, which according to the World Health Organization is the generally agreed-upon age in the developed world for people considered older or elderly.

In the past few days, House offices were given authority to use their remaining 2019 Member Representational Allowance funds to bring office equipment and technology up to standards for employees to telework amid the coronavirus epidemic.

“My office is mostly prepared for telework,” Wasserman Schultz said, adding that her office is taking advantage of using those 2019 funds to make purchases.

Several lawmakers expressed concern that decisions about telework and other measures were being made office by office and not as a matter of policy for the whole institution, leading to confusion.

“We are advising, in a bipartisan way, that every single office needs to have a continuity-of-operations plan,” said Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee. “That’s why the equipment purchases are necessary right now. Be ready. Be prepared. We don’t want anybody to shut down their ability to serve their constituents in their offices here in D.C., or be it in the district. Plan now. Have that plan in place.”

[Staffer email warns against false rumors of coronavirus infections on Capitol Hill]

There is a technology bar in the Rayburn Building cafeteria for the chief administrative officer of the House to advise offices on possible telecommuting needs.

Davis also said there has been an increased effort by the Architect of the Capitol to sanitize the Capitol complex, including elevators, handrails and door knobs more frequently.

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Bathrooms are also being cleaned more often, more hand sanitizers will be available and there will be more signs in the bathroom about proper hand-washing protocol, he said.

Additionally, the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol are working to make sure all security screening equipment is cleaned. “You’ll notice new bowls at the security screening stations,” Davis said.

‘This is the wild, Wild West’

Rep. Donna E. Shalala said her office expects to buy laptops with last year’s money to prepare for the possibility of working from home. The Florida Democrat, who was Health and Human Services secretary under President Bill Clinton, said she’s urged the Capitol to make an “institutional” decision, which is difficult because each office has its own employment manuals and policies.

“This is the wild, Wild West,” Shalala said.

Some veteran members were wondering how long the Capitol would still be open to visitors.

When asked if he is concerned about visitors coming to the Capitol, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said yes, adding that closing the Capitol should be an option. “Everybody has to consider that,” the New York Democrat said.

On the Senate side, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said such a decision should be made by health professionals.

“We’re waiting for guidance from Dr. Monahan. This should be a decision not made by the political people, but by the health people, the people who know health care. Dr. Monahan is supposed to issue some guidance for us shortly. That’s what we’ll go by,” the New York Democrat said.

House calls

California Rep. Raul Ruiz, an emergency physician, gave his own recommendations to the Democratic Caucus on Tuesday after presentations from the attending physician and others.

Ruiz said he told one lawmaker that she needs to be wearing a mask because although she does not have COVID-19, her coughing and mucus symptoms still need to be shielded from others around her.

Ruiz said one reason he is trying to educate his colleagues and call their attention to their own hygiene-related behavior is because staff are concerned about urging their bosses to change habits.

“There’s always the concern from staff … in terms of raising awareness and potentially being perceived perhaps as disrespectful,” Ruiz said. “That’s why I’m doing it, and that’s why I’m going to the members and speaking for the staff.”

Ruiz proposed that the House produce a standard sign that lawmakers can put on their office doors with public health infographics and announcements that the office is avoiding handshakes and using hand sanitizers.

“So that it is coming from the House Administration Committee and the physician’s office, so staff and others don’t feel nervous about creating a sign that may stigmatize the office,” Ruiz said.

He also suggested that members and staff on Capitol Hill could wear a pin or a button in a neon color that would help everyone remember not to instinctively extend a hand for a shake. He hoped that visual signals may help with the issue of staff feeling anxious about telling a constituent that they won’t shake their hand.

Ruiz and Wasserman Schultz both acknowledged one challenging factor that many members have been reticent to discuss: Older lawmakers and those with certain health conditions are at higher risk for the coronavirus.

“My concern is that if you’re talking about putting people older than 60 that may have diabetes, or they may have to take medications for heart and lung diseases, then you just look around and a lot of members fit that criteria,” Ruiz said.

“We have a lot of older members who could be vulnerable,” Wasserman Schultz said, noting CDC guidance that elderly people should not take long flights.

Members will have to chose for themselves whether to fly back and forth from their districts, but one decision has been taken out of their hands.

“Most of the CODELs have been canceled for next week,” Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. said Tuesday, referring to the congressional delegation trips that members usually travel on during recesses. The Virginia Democrat said later that he will be under self-quarantine after dining with a friend who tested positive for COVID-19. 

One member who got some good news Tuesday was Rep. Matt Gaetz. After coming into close contact with someone who was infected with COVID-19, the Florida Republican went into self-quarantine and was tested for the virus. It came back negative.

“In an abundance of caution, I will remain under self-quarantine at the advice of medical professionals through Thursday at 2pm. I continue to feel fine and show no symptoms,” Gaetz tweeted.

Jacob Metz, Ryan Kelly and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.

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