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How lawmakers are spending their coronavirus self-quarantines

With televoting not an option, there’s Twitter and other forms of outreach, including podcasting, virtual town halls … and memes

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was among several lawmakers to announce a self-quarantine.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was among several lawmakers to announce a self-quarantine. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Politicians are by nature social animals. After all, they win their jobs by meeting with thousands of people. That’s a lot of handshakes, hugs, daps and conversations. So what happens when they have to enter isolation?

Musings on life and death, for one thing, plus discussions of toilet seats. As more members of Congress announced they would self-quarantine after potential exposure to the coronavirus (at least nine as of Thursday), they searched for ways to keep in touch with their constituents while trying not to look stir-crazy.

For five Republican lawmakers, the triggering event was the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, attended by someone who later tested positive for the virus.

After leaving CPAC, Rep. Matt Gaetz flew to Mar-a-Lago in his home state of Florida with President Donald Trump. But on the way back to D.C, Gaetz learned he had come close to the affected person.

“You can only imagine my sinking feeling when, as Air Force One was taking off, the last message I get is from my chief of staff telling me they went through this guy’s phone and they found where I had taken a picture with him,” he told The Spectator. “And that really concerned me because in the picture I was holding the guy’s phone. I might as well have licked his toilet seat.”

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Gaetz was taken to Walter Reed Hospital and tested. Since he normally sleeps in his D.C. office, he decided to drive 15 hours to his Florida condo, sleeping in a Walmart parking lot along the way. He ended up testing negative for the coronavirus, he said.

He spent part of his self-quarantine defending himself against charges that it was insensitive for him to wear a gas mask on the House floor on March 4. But mostly he passed the time by talking to staff, giving radio interviews and “doing all the things I would normally do, just from my house,” he told The Spectator. Gaetz’s self-imposed quarantine period ended Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz was alone in his living room. “It made sense to be prudent,” the Texas Republican said on his podcast, taping “live from the self-quarantine studio,” as co-host Michael Knowles put it. Cruz also found time to tweet about Fox reality competition “The Masked Singer,” vowing never to pull a Sarah Palin.

“I’ve stayed at my house self-quarantining for 14 days from the point of the incident, but I am feeling great and healthy and strong,” Cruz said on the podcast. It’s a good thing, since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is canceling next week’s scheduled recess in hopes of passing a coronavirus aid package.

But just as Cruz was ready to emerge on Thursday, he got word that another of his contacts — Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain’s Vox party — tested positive for COVID-19.

“We met for about 20 minutes, sitting together at a conference table,” Cruz said in a press release, describing the early March encounter. “We shook hands twice and took pictures together.”

In light of that second exposure, Cruz announced he would extend his self-quarantine to March 17.

While some kept busy in isolation, others, like Rep. Paul Gosar, used Twitter to reflect on the very nature of life and death. “Been thinking about life and mortality today,” the Arizona Republican tweeted Monday. “I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does.”

Indeed.

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia also entered self-quarantine “out of an abundance of caution” after being notified about the CPAC attendee, as did North Carolina congressman and incoming White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. (It’s safe to say that Meadows spent time thinking about his new job.)

As those CPAC-related self-quarantines came to an end, another round began. This time, the triggering event was a meeting with Brazilian officials at Mar-a-Lago. Sens. Rick Scott and Lindsey Graham were alerted by the Brazilian Embassy of possible contact with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s press secretary, Fabio Wajngarten, who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I have been told that my risk is low, and I don’t need to take a test or quarantine,” Scott said in a statement. “However, the health and safety of the American people is my focus and I have made the decision to self-quarantine in an abundance of caution.” He said he plans to keep both his state and D.C. offices open.

Graham, for his part, said he had “no recollection” of direct contact with Bolsonaro or his press secretary, but will self-quarantine out of “an abundance of caution and upon the advice of his doctor.” With his announcement, 3 percent of senators found themselves in isolation.

Meanwhile, in the House, Democratic Rep. Don Beyer was finishing up a self-imposed quarantine period that began when he was contacted by the Virginia Department of Health about the illness of a friend he’d dined with. One of Beyer’s activities Thursday afternoon was using himself as an example of how hard it is to get tested.

“We tried to get a test for him, not bc he is special, but bc of who he interacts with,” tweeted spokesperson Aaron Fritschner. “Thought it important to know ASAP. But there aren’t enough tests, he didn’t meet the risk threshold. Member of Congress.”

As for Rep. Julia Brownley of California, she missed a meeting of the House Veterans’ Affairs panel on Thursday, so she had to watch from afar as her colleagues reauthorized a group she chairs: the Women Veterans Task Force.

No members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus or reported worrying symptoms. Instead, they have found themselves defining on the fly what it means to telework as a lawmaker, when the core functions of the job — voting on bills, presiding over or attending hearings — have to happen in person. It’s not like there’s such a thing as televoting in Congress. So for those cooped up at home, that leaves Twitter and other forms of constituent outreach, namely podcasts, Instagram, appearances on cable news, virtual town halls, and, in Gosar’s case, memes. 

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