The decision to suspend tours of the Capitol followed a chaotic cascade of announcements Wednesday from the World Health Organization officially labeling COVID-19 as a pandemic to Washington, D.C., declaring a state of emergency and barring large-scale gatherings to a congressman’s decision to share “sustained precautionary protocols.”
Earlier in the week, a growing roster of lawmakers who had been in contact with people confirmed to be infected with the new coronavirus was not enough for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the two chambers’ sergeants-at-arms to close the Capitol to visitors and tours.
Lawmakers and health and safety officials on the Hill struggled to make the choice about limiting access to the Capitol as they weighed the threat of the coronavirus against the desire to keep the building open to the public.
As universities across the country dispersed their students and moved classes online and the Capitol’s own Office of the Attending Physician urged lawmakers and staff to avoid large gatherings, crowds and physical contact, the Capitol continued to welcome thousands of visitors from around the world.
Pelosi took selfies with tourists in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday, and votes gathered hundreds of lawmakers and staffers together to mix and mingle, with few implementing any social-distancing precautions among themselves.
“We’re talking about trying to minimize contacts, obviously, unlike this,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters as they stood around him, only inches apart. “All this talk about it, but we don’t do it.”
Some lawmakers feared that closing the Capitol would send a damaging message about the resilience of American democracy.
“The nation’s Capitol building belongs to the people, which is one of the unique things about American democracy. And so I think there will be great reluctance to shut it down,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said Monday.
But other lawmakers led the charge to implement precautionary protocols in their offices. Rep. Seth Moulton on Wednesday suspended all Capitol tours led by his office until further notice.
A document the Massachusetts Democrat created included different levels of protocol and robust instructions for staff and sparked broad interest among other House members.
He shared his “sustained precautionary protocols” with every Democratic office to replicate if they wish, almost a dare to the congressional leaders and sergeants-at-arms.
“A lot of offices have reached out,” he 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 made individual decisions not to facilitate constituent tours, they called for congressional leaders to shut down public Capitol tours.
“That should have happened yesterday,” Moulton said.
“We’re clearly [at] 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.”
The shift on Capitol Hill followed other major venues and organizations that have recently announced restrictions. The NCAA basketball tournament will proceed without fans in the stands, for instance, and the NBA is expected to follow suit.
Trade shows, conferences across the country, and even the Houston rodeo have been canceled. Closer to the Capitol in Washington, the National Cathedral suspended all worship services and is closed until March 25. Promotions company I.M.P., operator of iconic concert venues in D.C. such as the 9:30 Club and the Anthem, postponed shows until April.
The coronavirus had not caused the kind of draconian access restrictions to the Senate wing of the Capitol that were imposed during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Capitol tours were not allowed to traverse the Senate side of the building, and congressional staff and journalist access was limited on a seemingly arbitrary basis to those with special passes, all without the kind of public threat presented by the current pandemic.
With recess approaching, the legislative schedule for the coming weeks is murky. The House and Senate both have legislative action they need to wrap up before lawmakers leave town and Pelosi has pledged that the House will continue to work as planned.
However, with lawmakers out of town next week, leadership will have the ability to reassess as the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop across the country.
Looking past the immediate future, House Democrats have their annual caucus retreat scheduled for April 1-3 in Philadelphia. House Republicans are scheduled to hold their retreat April 22-24 but haven’t announced a location.
“We haven’t made any decisions about that,” Cheney said when asked if GOP leaders are considering canceling their conference retreat. “I think that the guidance is very clear … that people should avoid large gatherings, and people ought to also practice social distancing.”
“We need to look at what is likely to happen in terms of the spread of the virus and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help get us off of the very steep curve that some other countries have been on,” the Wyoming Republican added. “The way to do that and the way to flatten that curve and to slow the spread and save lives is to take these really important mitigation steps, so I think you’ll see recommendations like that continue to come out.”
North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, vice chairman of the House GOP conference, told CQ Roll Call he thinks it’s premature to make a call on postponing the Republican retreat. He said they had talked about a location, but it had not yet been finalized due to security protocols.
“Maybe by the end of next week, when we first get back in session the following week, we’re going to lay out some timelines, especially if this thing hasn’t been the de-trending,” Walker said.