As Democrats and Republicans quarrel about the best path forward to open the House, coronavirus cases are increasing on Capitol Hill among those who make the legislative business possible: front-line workers.
Since April 29, the number of coronavirus cases among construction workers assigned to the Cannon House Office Building renovation project has climbed from 17 to 28, according to Ashley Phelps, spokeswoman for Illinois Republican Rodney Davis, ranking member on the House Administration Committee. In that same time frame, coronavirus cases among the Capitol Police rose from 12 to 18.
Cannon, which was completed in 1908, is enduring a massive, multiyear renovation project estimated at more than $800 million.
The Architect of the Capitol did not provide numbers of their total workforce’s coronavirus cases in April. CQ Roll Call only has the total number of cases within the agency to date, which is 20, according to Phelps.
House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren said she is concerned about the health of all in the legislative branch and cited the coronavirus cases as a reason to work remotely when possible.
“We in Congress have an option that many vital frontline workers do not: we can do much of our work remotely in a safe, secure, online format,” the California Democrat said in an emailed statement. “When we maximize our remote work, we minimize needless exposure of everyone who works on Capitol Hill — police, cleaning staff, other institutional staff, press, legislative staff, and Members.”
The increase in coronavirus cases is part of the reason Republicans are calling for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to implement programs to quell the virus.
“It’s one of the reasons Ranking Member Davis and the other committee Republicans have asked for Speaker Pelosi to implement a health monitoring program that includes some level of testing as many other companies and agencies have done,” Phelps said in an emailed statement.
One House Democratic staffer said the increase in cases is “deeply concerning.”
“As we see Congress ramp up work in D.C., I’m concerned for my safety and the safety of everyone who works on the Hill. I’m thankful my member and chief have allowed us to work from home and continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” this staffer said. “But it’s troubling to see some Republican leaders politicize common-sense safety measures, like wearing a mask, when it can help minimize the spread of the coronavirus.”
A Republican aide in the House said: “I don’t think anyone feels extremely unsafe” working on the Capitol grounds, noting that their office allows no more than four individuals in at one time.
However, the risk is there when going through security screening, according to the staffer.
“Going through security is something that’s gonna raise a little more hairs,” the staffer said. “The bottleneck when people are going into work is going to get a lot of people to be uncomfortable. But to me, it’s the same risk as if you were to go into a grocery store.”
Representatives for Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and ranking member Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., did not respond to requests for comment.
The Capitol Police and Architect of the Capitol require their employees to wear face coverings in certain situations but masks are not required to be worn by members at all times. Masks are “strongly recommended” to be worn, according to the attending physician, Brian Monahan.
Monahan issued a memo Tuesday, noting that masks are required in House committee hearing rooms: “For U.S. House of Representatives meetings in a limited enclosed space, such as a committee hearing room, for greater than 15 minutes, face coverings are REQUIRED.”
Although the Senate returned in early May, the House has yet to return in the same vein. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — along with Davis and Rules ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., — offered a plan to reconvene the chamber so lawmakers could meet in person. House Democrats were scheduled to return at the beginning of May, but they reversed course, citing advice against it from Monahan.
To avoid the potential spread of the virus, Democrats changed House rules to allow virtual hearings and markups, and proxy voting. House Republicans have sued Pelosi over the rule change on the grounds it is unconstitutional.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.