Cherry blossoms reached peak bloom in Washington this week, but most tourists in town for the foliage won’t get a chance to step inside the nearby Capitol. Even as the building begins a gradual reopening Monday, spots remain scarce.
The first phase includes limited tours for school groups and for guests escorted by lawmakers or their aides, according to guidance sent to House staff Wednesday.
Plans have been in the works to reopen the House side of the Capitol for a while, after many Republicans and some Democrats complained it was overdue, but the memo from the House Sergeant at Arms and Congress’ physician laid out the details.
Tours will be capped to keep numbers down — 15 visitors per lawmaker or staff member, with a higher limit for school groups.
“Throughout the first phase, tours to the Capitol will be monitored by Visitor Services so that modifications can be made if recommended by the Attending Physician,” the memo said. “The current CDC community level (now green) may change depending on COVID-19 conditions.”
Pandemic concerns shuttered the Capitol to tourists more than two years ago, and efforts to reopen have been complicated by security worries in the aftermath of the mob attack on Jan. 6, 2021, including staffing shortages within the ranks of the Capitol Police.
Another tourist attraction on the Capitol grounds, the U.S. Botanic Garden, will reopen April 1, said Joint Committee of Congress on the Library Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren.
“I am hopeful today’s announced phased reopening is a significant first step towards returning to pre-pandemic levels of access for the American public at the United States Capitol,” Lofgren said in a statement.
Washington Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton criticized the phased reopening, saying it moves too slowly.
“Already, the distance between government and the people has grown, with trust in government at historic lows,” the Democrat said in a statement. “We should not entrench that distance further or longer.”
Tourists hoping to score a spot should contact their representative in Congress. Each office is limited to one staff-led tour each week and can reserve a required time slot starting 9 a.m. Thursday, the memo said. Staff-led and school group tours are allowed between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
During the first phase of tours, groups will access the Capitol through the Longworth House Office Building, and the Longworth Cafeteria will be open for the use of escorted groups, the memo said.
School groups, which must also be met by office staff at the Longworth entrance, will be taken to the CVC for a guided tour by visitor service personnel.
The memo encouraged members to adhere to a route developed by Capitol Visitor Services, though it did not specify what that route was. A CVC spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Staff reacted to the news with general excitement, but some had questions about how the system would work in practice.
“It’s about damn time,” said a House GOP staffer not authorized to speak about his office tour policy, noting that the Senate has allowed small staff-led tours on its side of the Capitol since December. The House remained closed to most visitors throughout winter, even though officials dropped a mask requirement ahead of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this month.
After the memo was sent, some staffers told CQ Roll Call they still didn’t have clear answers about how the one-tour-per-week-per-office rule would be enforced, and what the tour route would look like.
Ben Kamens, deputy communications director for Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, said his office is training its interns on how to give tours this week, and multiple tour requests from constituents have already begun to come in.
To accommodate as many as possible, the office will likely commingle requests into single groups, he said. “We might have to double and triple up tour requests.”
As spring wears on, the memo laid out the next steps in the Capitol’s reopening. Dome tours of up to eight people will be allowed starting on April 25. And a second phase of reopening, where the CVC will open its doors on a limited basis, is expected to begin at the end of May.
"Other areas are expected to reopen to visitors during this phase,” the memo said. “Such as the CVC restaurant."