Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s scary to go to work’ at the White House or Senate — making it tricky for Trump to argue Americans should return to work

After a top aide to Vice President Pence tested positive, infectious diseases expert Anthony S. Fauci will work from home some while Pence goes to work. (Alex Brandon/AP)

This has been updated with the latest news.

The White House and the Republican-controlled Senate both made a point in the past week of being open for business as President Trump makes a concerted push to focus on reopening the economy.

Within days, we learned about new cases of the coronavirus at both institutions. And that’s despite the resources at the government’s disposal to avoid such a situation. That doesn’t bode well for Trump’s effort to get American businesses to open their doors before this pandemic is on the downturn.

Over the weekend, three members of the coronavirus task force — including infectious diseases expert Anthony S. Fauci — went into quarantine or partial quarantine or took precautions to work from home more after finding out a top aide to Vice President Pence tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump’s military valet also tested positive.

In the Senate, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), will go into quarantine in his home state “out of an abundance of caution” after one of his aides tested positive.

The fallout from the coronavirus reaching the White House and the Senate will collide Tuesday: Alexander will chair a hearing on the virus remotely, and all four of the Trump administration health officials invited will participate remotely or with extra precautions because they came into contact with someone with the virus while at work. That includes Fauci, whose spokesperson said working at home sometimes will be part of his response to making sure he’s not infected. The topic of the hearing: going back to work and school.

All of this is despite routine rapid testing in the White House and precautions by Senate officials to keep people as far apart as possible. The Senate does not have tests for all its lawmakers and staff — congressional leaders rejected an offer, saying front-line workers needed it more. Though, as the House prepares to return next week, the D.C. mayor said the city could offer tests for members of Congress and their staff.

The Senate has been holding meetings and committee hearings in cavernous rooms and having some senators telework.

Still some got the virus, forcing more people back into their homes.

Which raises the question: How can it be safe for the average American business without such testing capabilities or room to put such protocols in place to reopen its doors? A majority of states have started at least a partial reopening, despite the fact that there isn’t nearly sufficient testing to monitor everyone who wants to get back to work. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prepared detailed guidance for how businesses — from retailers to day cares — could reopen in phases, but even as states open up, its release has been held up by the White House, which is concerned that the recommendations could be too heavy-handed.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate are implicitly acknowledging more people will get sick as they warn that businesses are worried about lawsuits from employees or customers who go into a store and get infected.

The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker asked Trump about this on Monday: What does it mean for the average business if the White House, which is one of the most secure workplaces in the country, cannot contain the spread of coronavirus?

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump has repeatedly said that the virus will disappear. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump was defiant, saying it was just one person who contracted the virus. (Two, actually: A military valet for the president also tested positive.) The White House is a big place, overall that’s a pretty good rate, he said.

In other words, coronavirus is the cost of doing business: Even people in the White House will get sick when they go to work. It’s up to Americans to decide whether that’s enough security for them to venture out of their homes.

Trump has been warned before by advisers that he will own the deaths, politically speaking, if the country reopens too soon. That played a role in him backing off a goal to reopen by Easter, reports The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker.

He introduced a phased reopening plan putting the onus on governors to decide when to reopen. That could mean the governors would take the blame if things go badly and take the credit if things go well.

As cases nationwide have plateaued, but not gone down, it’s become clear that reopening any time soon would require a grim calculation: Letting people resume living their lives more outside the home will almost certainly mean more sickness and possibly more death. Trump has acknowledged this. “Will some people be affected? Yes,” he said last week. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”

But most Americans are skeptical that it’s time to make that trade-off, according to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

“It is scary to go to work,” White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said Sunday, a quote that is reverberating. He said he would still show up, and his reasoning: “People have to step up and serve their country.” Pence also will go to work despite his spokeswoman testing positive.

Late Monday, a White House directive urged people to wear masks when on the complex, even though Trump doesn’t like masks.The Associated Press reports he thinks it could look like he’s focused on the health concerns about coronavirus rather than reopening the economy.

That the White House and the Senate have to worry about their own outbreaks won’t help assuage the public’s concerns about health and safety as their states and workplaces open.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.