Capitol Hill has felt like a ghost town for most of the pandemic, empty hallways wrapped in unnatural quiet.
Now it’s been 100 days since a member of Congress announced a positive test for COVID-19, and something has changed. There wasn’t a distinct moment when the hallways sprang back to life, but the past few weeks have felt almost normal, according to several congressional staffers.
Almost, but not quite. As with most things in the sprawling home of the legislative branch, there is no grand master plan to guide the Capitol’s return to business, no single set of rules that applies to everyone.
That much was clear on a recent Thursday before a weeklong break, as lawmakers, staff and visitors darted about the tunnels under the complex, creating a buzz of noise and a sense of crowding. Some wore masks, some pulled them down to chat and some didn’t wear them at all.
Asked if it made them nervous to see so many unmasked faces, one House GOP staffer merely replied, “No, I’m a Republican.”
A Senate Republican staffer said it wasn’t that simple. “Opinions within our office and most offices are not homogenous,” the staffer said.
Making the rules
In the surrounding city, just steps from the Capitol, masks are still going strong. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has been stricter than many governors in her mandates and continues to require both unvaccinated and vaccinated people to mask up indoors while shopping, riding public transit or entering common areas.
But Congress doesn’t have to adhere to those rules. It can make its own — and since the workplace is both decentralized and bitterly divided, thousands of employees are left to do wildly different things as the Capitol starts to get busy again.
“I don’t wear it in my office, everybody’s been vaccinated,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a gastroenterologist by training. “We’re going on the science, and the CDC is going on this fear of ever being proven wrong, and therefore bearing some liability.”
Cassidy, who was wearing a mask when he talked to CQ Roll Call, said he recovered from COVID-19 and is vaccinated. His staff is free to choose whether or not to wear a mask at work, he said, and he’s “fairly confident” that even if he’s exposed he’ll be safe.
“If I’ve been vaccinated, I’m going to be protected. And we know that coronavirus is going to be with us now. It’s going to be with us forever,” the Louisiana Republican said.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said it should be a matter of common decency. “Right now people in this building don’t know who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t,” he said.
“I’m vaccinated. It would probably be OK if I didn’t wear a mask, but I’m not 100 percent sure. And I also think I’d freak people out,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “I just don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable by not wearing a mask because nobody’s sure that I’ve been vaccinated.”
Those personal choices largely mirror the talking points of their parties. Few things have been more thoroughly politicized than the humble mask — which either muzzles your freedoms or shows you care for fellow humans, depending on who you ask.
Things got heated last week when Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio called out GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky for going mask-free around the Capitol. “He’s kind of a lunatic,” Brown said, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
While the Capitol complex is ground zero for partisan posturing, it’s also a workplace that relies on thousands of employees — legislative and administrative staffers, Capitol Police, custodial staff, groundskeepers, food service workers and more — to keep it running. And compared to other workplace reopening plans, the process at the Capitol has been all over the place, according to several staffers.
Hardly anything is standardized. Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently told reporters she believes about 75 percent of lawmakers in the House have been vaccinated, and reiterated that more Republicans need to get vaccinated if they want shorter voting times and a return to pre-pandemic operations.
Members may be fined for not wearing a mask on the House floor, but the Senate hasn’t implemented any such rules. Hallways are basically a free-for-all, and lawmakers set varying policies on telework, social distancing and mask-wearing for staffers within their own individual offices.
It’s not clear how many workers at the complex have been vaccinated. More than 67 percent of Capitol Police had received vaccines as of late April, acting Chief Yogananda Pittman told the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.
Vaccination rates among custodial and grounds staff are harder to come by. Architect of the Capitol employees are eligible for same-day vaccination appointments from the Office of the Physician, according to AOC spokeswoman Laura Condeluci. She did not answer questions about the percentage who have been vaccinated.
Setting the tone
Meanwhile, some staffers who had been working at home during the height of the pandemic are starting to return.
The increase has been felt slowly but surely, especially when Congress is in session, said Remmington F. Belford, communications director for New York Democratic Rep. Yvette D. Clarke. He’s typically with the congresswoman on days she’s on the Hill.
“It’s essentially a skeleton crew and we generally stick to the office,” but he’s noticed a change in the past month.
He wishes people around the complex would keep wearing masks. “You could still be a spreader to people who are not vaccinated and who potentially may have an elevated risk,” he said.
The gym for House staffers reopened this week, a sign that demand is returning. And maybe the surest sign of surging normalcy was a memo in April from then-acting House Sergeant-at-Arms Timothy Blodgett, who announced that the campus would reopen to business visitors, defined as “any individual, alone or escorted by congressional staff, seeking entrance into the Capitol for official business.” (The Capitol remains closed to tourists.)
Lawmakers themselves — along with their grievances and competing agendas — are largely setting the tone.
Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, a gynecologist who recorded a video with other medical professionals in Congress to promote vaccination, is one person who’s been roaming the Capitol hallways without a mask. He doesn’t need it, he said.
“If people don’t have a reward for taking the vaccine, then people are not going to take it,” the GOP lawmaker said, arguing that everyone on the Hill has “had the opportunity to get the vaccine.”
Marshall has been one of the most vocal mask shedders in recent weeks, along with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Another Republican was more circumspect.
“I’m wearing a mask less. But I still wear a mask a lot, and I’m still very careful about social distancing,” said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, who also said he has a special mask to wear when he travels on airplanes.
“I mean, this stuff will kill you,” he said.
Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.