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Coronavirus renders US Capitol a ghost town through most of April

House won't be back until April 20 at earliest; Capitol extends temporary closure to visitors through April amid health crisis

The halls of the U.S. Capitol — usually teeming with lawmakers, staff, press and visitors — will remain mostly empty over the next three weeks as health officials continue to urge Americans to take personal steps to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer advised members Monday that they should not expect to be called back to Washington until April 20 at the earliest. Senate Republican leaders have indicated that they do not plan to return to Washington until sometime after the Easter recess.

And the Capitol will remain closed to visitors through May 1, the Senate and House sergeants-at-arms announced in a joint statement Monday. The sergeants-at-arms first temporarily banned public access to the Capitol because of the health crisis on March 12.

Members, staff, credentialed press and official business visitors still have access to the Capitol and Senate and House office buildings.

“We are taking this temporary action out of concern for the health and safety of congressional employees as well as the public,” the sergeants-at-arms said.

Four House members — Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania and Democrats Ben McAdams of Utah and Joe Cunningham of South Carolina — and Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul have tested positive for the virus so far. New York Democratic Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez announced Monday that she had been diagnosed with a “presumed coronavirus infection.” Numerous other lawmakers are self-quarantining either because of potential exposure to the coronavirus or to protect others in their households.

There was growing concern last week among U.S. Capitol Police officers about the lack of testing in the department. Capitol dining staff have worn latex gloves and have not accepted cash in order to help prevent the spread of disease.

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Working remotely

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on a press call Monday that she anticipates the House returning after the Easter and Passover holidays. In the interim, leadership and committee leaders are discussing options for electronic hearings and remote work but not voting, the California Democrat said.

Pelosi said there are technologies available for the committees to use in conducting remote work.

“We have what the possibilities are,” she said. “We will make some decisions working with the chairman.”

But when it comes to voting remotely, Pelosi is ruling that out for now.

“Let me dismiss the remote voting,” she said, noting there was “no way” that would happen in the short term because it would require “serious discussion” and a change to House rules.

Phase four

Pelosi also said members will have teleconferences or other virtual discussions about the fourth phase of their response to the coronavirus pandemic during their time away from Washington.

She said she envisions the next bill including more direct payments and “an infrastructure piece that takes us into the future” that would expand rural broadband to cope with the increase in teleworking and tele-teaching and prioritize infrastructure for clean water.

Pelosi reiterated other priorities she’s said should be part of the fourth bill, including emergency safety regulations for first-responders, expanded paid family and medical leave, more money for state and local governments, more assistance for hospitals and other health institutions like nursing homes and more money for pensions.

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