Capitol comes under microscope even with new coronavirus guidelines
Updates include sterner warnings about travel, social distancing
Congressional staff received updated guidance Wednesday for disinfecting workspaces and restrictions on travel from the Office of the Attending Physician, as impacts of the coronavirus continue to reach Capitol Hill.
“These suggestions reflect best judgement of an evolving circumstance that may require revision as more experience with the SARS-CoV-2 infection is gained,” a “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the OAP reads, referring to the virus that causes COVID-19.
The letter instructs staff to ask visitors to congressional offices about any respiratory illness or symptoms when they arrive for meetings. Larger events should be conducted by video or teleconference, according to the OAP.
Rep. Donna E. Shalala told reporters she was planning to not host larger meetings, like town halls, in her district due to the virus.
“I’m going to do them telephonically. I actually get larger crowds if I do it telephonically. More people call in, I can get 1,000 people, as opposed to a couple of hundred people,” the Florida Democrat said. “So I actually think that’ll be an effective way to communicate in my community.”
But many members said this week they were continuing to keep meetings and events on the calendar, including campaign events.
For members attending large gatherings, the attending physician recommends they “enter/exit via stage entrances to avoid mingling through large crowds of people.”
“Members should adopt a stance that avoids close direct contact with other individuals, such as shaking hands, giving/receiving hugs, taking selfies, etc,” the letter continued.
The directive appeared not to be taken seriously Wednesday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was just one of many lawmakers who stopped in the Capitol Rotunda to take photos with crowds of tourists and visitors.
The OAP details procedures for disinfecting hard surfaces and “high contact” areas, including telephones, keyboards, doorknobs, desks, railings and counters. It urges staff to frequently wipe these down with any standard home disinfectant.
The guidance is aligned with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, including hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time after touching high-contact surfaces and using hand sanitizer if soap and water are not immediately available.
Hand sanitizer may be hard to come by, as offices try to comply with the guidance all at once.
Multiple House and Senate staff have told CQ Roll Call in recent days that office supply stores in each chamber are sold out of hand sanitizer and that staff assistants are seeking any extra supplies on email listservs.
Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly has suggested extending vote times so members can go to the floor in smaller groups, to comply with the OAP’s suggestion that people not gather in large crowds.
A separate update on the OAP website detailed recommendations for staff planning to travel.
“Personal Elective or non-essential foreign travel should be deferred at this time,” the directive read.
With recess approaching and both chambers expected to be out of session next week, many staff on Capitol Hill likely have personal travel plans. But the OAP warned against taking advantage of deeply discounted rates for cruises.
“Do not initiate travel on cruise ships at this time until further guidance has determined this to be a safe practice,” the memo said. The update urged staffers to consider that even if they are healthy, travel could put elderly family members or other immunocompromised family or friends at risk.
“We don’t know how all of this will play out,” Rep. Phil Roe, a medical doctor, said Tuesday. “This particular virus appears to affect older people more than younger people, and so you do need to take precautions and be careful.”
The Tennessee Republican wasn’t alone in recognizing that in addition to putting elderly family or friends at risk, staffers could also put the substantial number of elderly lawmakers at risk also.
Congress has 194 members who are 65 years or older, which according to the World Health Organization is the general agreed-upon age in the developed world for people considered older or elderly.
“You do not want to be a cause of coronavirus importation to the United States,” the OAP said.
The memo also notes that medical facilities and resources are strained across the globe by the spread of the coronavirus and that even simple medical care abroad may be a “considerable hardship.”
Members and staff will have to make their own choices about flying back and forth from their districts, but one decision has been taken out of their hands, with several congressional delegation trips, or CODELs, being canceled for next week.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer was asked why leadership decided to have members fly in this week. “There was probably no right answer. The Capitol physician was saying and others are saying [there’s] minimal risk [for] planes domestically, not foreign travel.”
“Members are of two minds,” Hoyer said, describing those who wanted to be in Washington this week to pass legislation to address the economic impacts of the crisis and those who want to be back in their districts talking to local officials and citizens about how to manage the spread of the virus.
Touring the Capitol
The OAP met with Capitol tour guides and staff earlier this week about operations of the Capitol Visitor Center. Staff say that despite a message on the CVC website saying that the Architect of the Capitol is following CDC guidance, social distancing measures that have been in place throughout office buildings and the Capitol, such as avoiding handshakes and other forms of contact, are not in place at the visitor center.
“Hand sanitizer stations and cleaning solutions used on the campus meet CDC and EPA standards for combating COVID-19 (coronavirus),” reads the highlighted message on visitthecapitol.gov.
Meanwhile, the coat checks are still operating, which puts visitors from all over the world in close and direct contact with CVC staff.
“Please be aware that campus tours may be canceled should medical experts recommend restricting visitors or a campus closure. Thank you for your patience as we help combat the spread of COVID-19,” the website message reads.
Hoyer said Wednesday that leadership and other Capitol officials are grappling with whether to suspend tours or close the Capitol to nonemployees.
“We haven’t yet come to grips with whether or not we ought to close down the Capitol in terms of visitors,” Hoyer said. “It’s a step that we would be reluctant to take, [being] very cognizant of the fact that this is the people’s Capitol, the people’s House. … On the other hand, if what we’re doing is providing for a more dangerous or more susceptible environment, then we probably ought to take steps to do that.”
CVC employees have not been made aware of plans for center operations or contingency measures if an employee is infected or a tourist comes through who later tests positive for COVID-19.
Multiple tour guides expressed concern that best practices are not being implemented in this high-traffic area of the Capitol. They have heard there are plans to run the CVC on limited staffing and to cut down the size of tours.
“Alas the CVC is quite behind the curve,” on key preventative measures, one employee told CQ Roll Call.
In a possible sign of what’s to come, Rep. Seth Moulton’s office has suspended all office-led Capitol tours until further notice as part of a larger implementation of precautionary protocols among his staff.
The Massachusetts Democrat said the guidance he provided his staff is the right thing to do for his office and constituents.
“We’re trying to set an example for schools and small businesses in our district that really don’t know what to do and feel like they’ve been getting a lot of conflicting guidance from Washington,” he said.
He shared his plans with every Democratic office to replicate if they wish. “A lot of offices have reached out,” Moulton said. “As soon as I walked on the floor, several people came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we saw what you’re doing. We want to adopt that as well.’”
As members like Moulton make individual decisions not to facilitate constituent tours, they are joining calls for congressional leaders to shut down public Capitol tours.
“That should have happened yesterday,” Moulton said.
“We’re clearly to a place where it’s very important for us to take action,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming said. “It would be prudent at this point to stop the tours.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer thinks leadership should consider limiting activity on the Hill to just members.
“We want to do everything, take every precaution possible to make sure that people are safe,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “Part of that … is keeping groups small and if there are gatherings that are unnecessary [or] nonessential, we should we should take steps” to limit those.
Rep. Dean Phillips agreed.
“We should end all fly-ins and the CVC should be closed,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “We should encourage people to not travel here right now — anywhere that is serving as a hub and spokesmodel for the introduction of the disease and then retransmission is part of the problem. So I would argue we are part of the problem.”
Both Gottheimer and Phillips think members of Congress should still be in Washington conducting their legislative work, particularly as it relates to crafting a federal response to the pandemic.
Other members weren’t willing to call for any campus-wide shutdowns.
“That’s up to the people that run the building to make the decision about large groups and whether they want to expose people,” Shalala said. “They certainly are scrubbing the place down.”
The Senate sergeant-at-arms announced Wednesday that beginning Thursday, all Capitol Police screening posts will be outfitted with clear plastic bags for individuals to use instead of the plastic bowls that are used for personal items to move through the X-ray machines.
“The precautionary measure will help increase sanitation at USCP screening posts, as it will allow individuals to place personal items through the x-ray machines without the need to handle bowls or bins,” a memo sent to staff reads.
After items are cleared through the machines, people can keep their bag or discard it in provided trash bins.
Outside the Capitol
Meanwhile, the D.C. Health department issued recommendations Wednesday calling for the postponement or cancellation of non-essential mass gatherings, including conferences and conventions.
“Mass gatherings” are defined as events in which 1,000 or more people congregate in a specific location. This recommendation is in effect through March 31.
Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.