Fist bumps, eye contact and perhaps even a cup of coffee will once again be part of House Democrats’ Tuesday caucus meetings when they resume the weekly gatherings in person next month.
House Democrats will hold an “in-person hybrid meeting” on June 15, Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries announced Tuesday. Revised public health guidance and “the vastly improving fortunes of the public health environment, both here at the Capitol and, most importantly, across the country” are making the conditions favorable to share the same air, he said.
Members will likely be allowed to choose how they want to attend what used to be a closed-door breakfast, virtually or in person.
It will be a big change after roughly 90 straight virtual confabs — Tuesday meetings, conference calls and even a caucus election — since the start of the pandemic.
“Decisions on how we adapt to the improving public health situation in the Capitol with hybrid caucus meetings will be made in consultation with the membership and the Office of the Attending Physician ahead of the June legislative work period,” caucus spokeswoman Christie Stephenson said.
The House is set to depart Friday for three weeks of recess and committee work before returning the week of June 14.
Republicans have been holding their conference meetings in person for months in the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium, but they’ve capped capacity and allowed for virtual attendance to accommodate members they couldn’t fit.
Because Democrats are in the majority, they get to make decisions about how various meeting spaces around the Capitol are used. Theoretically, they could kick Republicans out of the CVC auditorium if they wanted that space for themselves.
Democrats had been meeting in a smaller Capitol basement space prior to the pandemic, which they could also return to, likely with capacity limits.
Attending Physician Brian P. Monahan released guidance last week relaxing mask-wearing and distancing for people who have been vaccinated, allowing them to resume pre-pandemic activities without a mask or staying six feet apart in most areas on the House side of the Capitol.
While the initial guidance said masks would be required only in the House chamber, Monahan on Monday clarified that people should mask up in committee rooms too.
“That may change in the future based upon degree of entire group vaccination attained and prevailing coronavirus community risk,” Monday’s letter from the Office of the Attending Physician said.
Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated Americans can mostly lose the mask inside and outside without worry of getting COVID-19.
Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar, asked if Monahan’s guidance conflicts with that, said CDC guidelines are also very clear that workplaces can decide their own unique circumstances.
“I think we would agree that the House floor is a unique condition, especially with Republicans admitting that only 75 percent of their members are vaccinated,” Aguilar said.
Asked if 100 percent of House Democrats were vaccinated, Aguilar demurred, referring the question to the OAP. Monahan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
With maskless faces in the hallways and a gradual surge of returning workers, things are starting to feel normal again at the Capitol, but other pandemic procedures linger. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Monday the House would extend proxy voting until July 3, despite the increasing number of vaccinated members.
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday the decision was made based on the advice from Monahan.
“The attending physician indicated that they would continue this, as long as substantial numbers were partially vaccinated, unvaccinated and vaccine indeterminate,” he said.
He said the mask rules remained in place to prevent “in effect, relapse, a surge” and to make sure members, staff and journalists stay safe in the building.
“We continue to believe that in-person participation in committees and on the floor of the House and in Washington, D.C, is the preferred option, but at least until July 3 we’ll proceed as we have,” he said.
Over on the other side of the complex, Senate Democrats happily returned to traditional Tuesday caucus lunch meetings in April, though there was one main item missing — lunch.
Senators, who are mostly vaccinated, were encouraged not to eat or drink during the meeting, which was the first time the 50 Democrats had gathered in one space together in the 117th Congress, besides the chamber floor.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office was asked whether it plans to provide guidance from Monahan on its side of the Capitol Tuesday, but the request for comment went unanswered.
The mood is changing in the surrounding city too, though the Capitol does not have to follow rules set by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. In an order Monday, Bowser said vaccinated people had to wear masks only in businesses that require them or specific settings like mass transit or hospitals. Starting Friday, the district is lifting restrictions on the capacity and hours of operation for many businesses. On June 11, nightclubs and sports and entertainment venues will be allowed to resume full operations.
Lindsey McPherson and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.