So it was on Capitol Hill this week, where senators (average age: 63) spent their days scurrying through hallways, swarmed by dozens of journalists with little regard for the six feet of recommended social distancing. They touched buttons in elevators, jumped on little underground trams with terrible ventilation and posed for photos with out-of-towners in the cafeteria.
“It’s a little strange,” said a senior staffer for a Republican senator, “Because you see all these recommendations about avoiding crowds and every day it’s like there are hundreds of violations going on right in front of you.”
Sure, some efforts have been made in the marble halls of the Capitol complex to mitigate the risk. Signs hang from office doors encouraging “contact free” meetings with members (“elbow bumps always welcome”). Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told his office at the beginning of the week that he would be doubling the sick-leave policy just in case, and he planned a “tornado drill” for Thursday to see how the office would run with most of the staff working remotely.
But for much of the week, it was essentially business as usual at the Capitol, just with more Purell and fatalism.
“We’re both screwed,” Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, told a reporterTuesday afternoon, as one of his staffers walked beside him with an unmarked bottle of hand sanitizer. “You’re going to get it, I’m going to get it.”
As the week wore on, however, some of the concern bled into full-blown worry. A Senate-fside staffer announced Wednesday night that they’d been infected with the virus, starting a chain of D.C. office closures. By Thursday morning, the Hill, along with the Pentagon and the White House, had canceled public tours until April. News also broke that President Trump, who held a meeting with Senate Republicans this week, had interacted recently with a Brazilian official who has since tested positive for the virus.
As tends to be the case on Capitol Hill, there was no unified, bipartisan plan.
“What a lot of us are looking for and unsatisfied with,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey, “are clear institutional policies to ensure that we members of Congress do not become vectors of transmission.”
Members, he said, are canceling travel or scaling back on town halls, but these decisions are being made on an individual basis.
Some members have made the extraordinary decision to self-quarantine. None, perhaps, more notably than Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who had just boarded Air Force One on Monday when he got a call informing him he’d had contact with a person infected with coronavirus the week before. Gaetz alerted the AF1 staff instantly and was put into an isolated office at the back of the plane, only to later be called up to the front by Trump so the president could give him “the typical lighthearted comfort that he usually does.”
It wasn’t just Gaetz’s proximity to the president that made his case noteworthy; there was also the gas mask. Days earlier, the congressman had appeared to mock the seriousness of the spreading virus by wearing a gas mask on the House floor.
“I was trying to make the point last week that as a consequence of who we are and what we do are uniquely susceptible to this,” Gaetz said in an interview, speaking from an undisclosed quarantine location (“for safety” reasons), and taking particular issue with how The Washington Post had characterized his stunt. “Your paper chose to substitute your own judgment for my motives rather than listening to the words that were coming out of my own gas mask.”
Gasbag or not, Gaetz has got a point: members of Congress do seem like the perfect target for coronavirus, what with all the flights, the crowds, the backslapping and baby kissing.
“The shaking hands thing,” said Kaine, “that’s been a really hard habit to break.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) came within centimeters of shaking hands of a constituent before they each realized at the last second and bumped elbows. But it can seem at times like not everyone is even trying.
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, fresh off his own possible exposure to the virus, was offering a Capitol tour to constituents. And even before there was a confirmed case on the Hill, it could seem like danger was everywhere: from the tissue a member dropped and left on the floor to the journalist who fainted while waiting in a crowd for Trump to pass by. (It was probably just because it was hot. Right??)
The senators have projected a sense of calm about their own personal well-being, warranted or not:
“This is the most-well-looked-after group of 70-year-olds in the country,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois. “I am worried about the 70-year-old who is a Walmart greeter who has that job because he cannot make ends meet.”
But behind the scenes, some may have been more anxious than they appeared publicly.
The unhappy task of talking to Republican lawmakers about whether they might have been exposed to coronavirus fell to Matt Schlapp, who had been looking forward to some time off after the stress of organizing the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Except for the presence of a potentially deadly virus, the conference had gone off without a hitch. Attendees prayed on Ash Wednesday, laughed while watching a play about FBI lovers Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, and cheered on President Trump when he addressed them from the main stage. But after news broke that one guest among them had arrived at the Gaylord Hotel carrying the virus that has paralyzed parts of the world, Schlapp’s post-bacchanal plans turned into self-isolation at home with his family and answering calls from “dozens and dozens” of worried members of Congress.
They called in search of CPAC patient zero’s identity, something Schlapp wouldn’t give up.
“Even if I did, they wouldn’t know if they’d had contact since the person isn’t famous,” Schlapp said in a phone call from his house. Next, the members of Congress would tend to ask if they should be tested. No, Schlapp has been telling them, those tests are for sick people, not those whose only symptom remains paranoia. Not that the concern is without merit.
“Congress is not exactly brimming with youth and vitality,” Schlapp said. “I think when you see — trying to be polite here — people at such an advanced age it’s a fair question whether they should be there at all right now.”
Meanwhile, junior staffers have been giving extra-wide berths to older members in the hallways, doing their small part to keep the legislators safe. The possibility of an infected staffer is no longer just a hypothetical.
On Wednesday night, news broke online that a staffer for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was the first confirmed case of coronavirus on the Hill, giving rise to rumors that members of Congress may soon flee Washington.
Jim Manley, who spent years on the Hill, isn’t so sure that’s a good idea. First, he said, there’s a slightly better chance that some legislating may get done if people are around. Second, there’s the possibility of sparking panic around the country if people see the government shut down. And then, there’s this:
“It’s kind of pathetic to have to say this but if we go down a road of, say, having members vote from remote locations,” he said, “they might just keep on finding excuses to never come back to D.C. again.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.