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Pandemic precautions make for strange Senate reunion

Masked lawmakers, plexiglass dividers and high profile hearings without the hubbub mark Senate's return amid pandemic

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks with reporters as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' lunch in the Hart Senate Office building on Tuesday, May 5.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks with reporters as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' lunch in the Hart Senate Office building on Tuesday, May 5. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When the Senate returned to Washington this week for the first time in nearly seven weeks, they found the Capitol transformed by protective measures against the coronavirus and themselves adopting new behaviors in the face of the pandemic.

The floors and sidewalks on Capitol Hill were dotted with large yellow spots placed at six-foot intervals, with the image of footprints and a “Thanks for practicing social distancing” message on them.

“It was like a big game of Twister when I showed up today,” one Capitol worker was overheard saying Monday.

A reporter stands on a marked spot in the Senate subway in an effort to social distance as the Senate reconvenes on Monday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Cafeterias and press galleries both sported new hardware this week, plexiglass partitions protecting staffers stationed behind.

Hustling to vote Monday, many senators were in jeans and sneakers, coming straight from the airport or road trip. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona made a show of pointing to her lavender wig as she cast her vote Monday evening, a signal that her usual platinum blonde coif might require upkeep not available while hair salons remain shuttered.

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The vast majority of senators wore masks, some repping their home states, with Maine independent Angus King sporting a lobster mask, Alabama Republican Richard C. Shelby sporting a University of Alabama Crimson Tide mask and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen wearing an orange, white and black Baltimore Orioles mask.

Shelby boasted that his mask was made by the mother of one of his aides.

“She’s not even from Alabama,” he said.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., arrives for the Senate Republican Policy luncheon in Hart Building on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Kentucky Republican Rand Paul is the only senator known to have tested positive for the virus and was one of the few lawmakers walking around without a mask this week.

“I have immunity. I’ve already had the virus, so I can’t get it again and I can’t give it to anybody,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Despite unclear evidence that antibodies prevent another bout of infection and health experts warning of the potential of further risks, Paul doubled down.

“Of all the people you’ll meet here I’m about the only safe person in Washington,” Paul said.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt skipped the mask Monday and again for part of Tuesday.

“I guess I missed the memo,” Blunt told reporters when asked Tuesday why he wasn’t wearing one.

He was spotted wearing one later in the day.

[Senate Rules chairman joins calls for rapid coronavirus testing for lawmakers, staff]

The face-covering edict is a recommendation, not a requirement or a rule, and the Capitol Police will have no hand in enforcement. Most senators, reporters and others around Capitol Hill donned the face coverings, despite discomfort and serious trouble hearing one another.

“Think I’m going to pray like this today,” said Senate Chaplain Barry Black heading into the chamber Wednesday, wearing a blue mask. “You can’t even hear me, can you?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t breathe in this thing,” said California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, pulling a surgical mask away from her face while talking to reporters Monday.

She largely went without her mask while sitting on the dais for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday, even as her fellow senators kept their masks on.

Nearly half of the Senate is over the age of 65 and there seemed to be an underlying anxiety around the Capitol upon their return. Some of the hand-shaking, back-slapping and close-talking politicians have transformed into skittish creatures going out of their way to avoid one another.

Press conferences which usually feature leadership standing shoulder to shoulder in the ornate Ohio Clock corridor instead took place in a barren hallway in the Hart Senate Office building, with masked leaders spread apart.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at podium, along with, from left, Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., John Thune, R-S.D., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Todd Young, R-Ind., address the media after the Senate Republican Policy luncheon in Hart Building on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Feinstein said being back at work while coronavirus cases and deaths continue to climb across the country was “sobering.”

At a confirmation hearing for director of national intelligence nominee Rep. John Ratcliffe on Tuesday, both the room and the agenda were reorganized because of the pandemic. Members of the panel were told to come ask questions during specific 30-minute blocks and asked to watch the remainder of the hearing from their offices.

The room was split into two daises: The permanent dais, in the back, and a temporary dais made of tables set up around the room. Giant bottles of hand sanitizer and tubs of Purell wipes were distributed about every six feet along both.

Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., and ranking member Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., offered elbow bumps to Ratcliffe, who walked to the front of the room to greet the senators.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, arrives to a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday and is greeted by committee Chairman Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C. and Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., left. The panel is considering Ratcliffe’s nomination for director of national intelligence. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

While most nominees are flanked by their families, Ratcliffe, because of the pandemic, was alone. Burr thanked Ratcliffe’s family, who were not permitted to attend the hearing.

“I send them my appreciation via C-SPAN and thank them for their willingness to go on this journey with you,” Burr said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, made a reference to “social distance” but still gave his fellow Texas lawmaker a hearty pat on the shoulder both when greeting him and at the end of the conversation when congratulating him on his nomination. The two spoke for a few minutes before the hearing; neither wore a mask.

A Senate Banking hearing was an experiment in “hybrid” technology, with most Republicans appearing in person, but Democrats tuning in remotely.

At one point Sen. Elizabeth Warren was skipped over because she couldn’t get her microphone to work and Sen. Sherrod Brown’s dogs could be heard in the background as he tuned in from his home in Ohio.

Jessica Wehrman and Jim Saksa contributed to this report.

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