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Capitol testing picks up, but masks still spark conflict

Senators sniping at one another over masks

Lawmakers and staff are now able to get COVID-19 testing right inside the Capitol, but it’s voluntary, even for members who travel from hotspots in their home states and head to work on Capitol Hill.

Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, after announcing he learned that he’d been exposed. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida announced over the weekend that he was going to quarantine due to the coronavirus, and Sen. Todd Young of Indiana had been isolating but returned to the Capitol on Tuesday after saying he tested negative.

While lawmakers traveling to Washington for “official business” are not required to follow the travel restrictions and testing and quarantine requirements set out by the District of Columbia government, the Office of the Attending Physician is attempting to offer services that make it easier for members to adhere to public health guidance as cases continue to rise across the country.

A recent order from District Mayor Muriel Bowser put 42 states on a travel restriction list, with people who make nonessential trips to D.C. required to self-quarantine for 14 days because of coronavirus levels in those locations. Travelers are instructed to get a COVID-19 test before traveling and again 3-5 days after arriving in Washington.

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The Office of the Attending Physician says the testing provided at the Capitol would satisfy the post-travel testing guidance and “be consistent with the spirit of the Mayor’s order.”

The RT-PCR tests offered at the Capitol include a self-administered nose swab under supervision of OAP staff. They have a 6-12 hour turnaround time, with results delivered by text message or email.

The updated availability of COVID-19 tests was announced in a memo from the OAP on Sunday, which focused on only one chamber, saying “The House of Representatives will begin offering post travel RT-PCR coronavirus testing,” and not mentioning the Senate.

House staffers received emails alerting them to the testing in HVC 200 between 8 a.m. and noon Monday through Friday, while Senate staff received no such email.

The attending physician serves both chambers.

Members of the media with congressional press credentials can get tested by the OAP, even if they have not been directly exposed to lawmakers at the Capitol, which was a previous threshold.

The system is not meant to be used the same way as the mandatory testing process at the White House, where staff and media are tested daily with rapid tests. As the frequent outbreaks on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue have proven, testing alone is not a silver bullet to keep the highly contagious virus at bay.

The OAP emphasized in the memo that wearing masks, social distancing and daily self-screening protocols are key pieces of an overall strategy to limit the spread of the virus within the Capitol Hill community.

Adherence to those necessary supporting behaviors has been spotty at the Capitol this week, and the national tension over mask wearing emerged on the Senate floor Monday night.

Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown got into a verbal sparring match when Brown asked Sullivan, who was presiding over the Senate at the time, if he would wear a mask.

“I’d start by asking the presiding officer to please wear a mask as he speaks,” Brown said, donning his own mask as he made the request.

As Brown began saying that he knows he can’t tell Sullivan what to do, the Republican cut him off, telling him that “I don’t wear a mask when I’m speaking like most senators … I don’t need your instruction.”

“I know you don’t need my instruction, but there clearly isn’t much interest in this body in public health,” Brown replied.

Brown posted a video of the terse exchange on Twitter, arguing that the incident showed a lack of concern about spreading the virus within the Capitol Hill community.

“Once again, I asked my Republican colleagues to stop endangering all the Senate workers — and simply wear a mask when presiding over the Senate,” he tweeted with a link to the video. “Once again, they refused.”

Texas Republican Ted Cruz accused Brown of exaggerating in a tweet.

“This is idiotic. @SherrodBrown is being a complete ass,” Cruz tweeted, claiming Sullivan was more than 50 feet away from Brown. “He wears a mask to speak — when nobody is remotely near him — as an ostentatious sign of fake virtue.”

The mask-wearing controversy is not entirely partisan. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein is frequently seen without a mask, walking the halls flanked by masked staffers. She had a close mask-free conversation with masked staff outside Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing with social media CEOs. She typically slips one on as she approaches a group of colleagues or reporters.

Mask wearing in the House was also far from universal Monday, and lawmakers flouted guidelines for quickly exiting the chamber after voting and keeping their distance. During a vote Monday evening, lawmakers shared hugs and handshakes, some with masks hanging below their noses, all while Sergeant-at-Arms staff tried to clear out the chamber for cleaning between votes.

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