(Updates with guidance from the Office of the Attending Physician.)
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The new reality confronting the Senate when it returns after an absence of almost six weeks will be one of filing in past doorkeepers wearing masks and having nowhere to go for a gourmet jolt of morning joe.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called his decision to bring the chamber back into session Monday a move to “honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct our business in person.” But it doesn’t mean it will be business as usual given that one senator — Kentucky Republican Rand Paul — eight Capitol Police officers and 11 construction workers have tested positive for Covid-19.
Visitors to Senate offices must be met at entrances and escorted by staffers at all times. The Architect of the Capitol’s office, which purchased face masks for all Senate offices, directed its employees in an April 8 memo to wear them “while on campus, and in public spaces.”
Capitol Police officers “have been given PPE,’’ spokeswoman Eva Malecki said, using the shorthand for personal protective equipment. She declined to say whether officers had been ordered to wear face masks. Nor would she say how police routine would change once the Senate returned.
“We’re here 24/7,” she said.
Most of the restaurants and eateries that operate in the Capitol complex won’t reopen, despite the Senate session and several hearings planned by committees in the House, which will remain closed as a complete body. That includes the Senate Dining Room for members and their guests inside the Capitol itself, according to an advisory sent to staff members.
Senators shouldn’t expect to get a trim in the unisex Senate Hair Care shop in the basement of the Russell Senate Office building. It will remain closed along with Cups, the go-to spot across the hall for lattes, cappuccinos and other gourmet coffee drinks that’s frequented by Senate aides, lobbyists and reporters.
Staffers have worked remotely and the Senate has been largely deserted since its March 25 vote to approve the $2.2 trillion stimulus package.
At that time, McConnell encouraged his colleagues to leave the chamber after casting their votes to avoid the usual crowds of senators on the floor.
House leaders abandoned their own plans to reconvene May 4 on the advice of Attending Physician Brian Monahan, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), told reporters. Hoyer said Monahan cited the continued increase in Covid-19 cases in the District of Columbia and two adjacent suburban counties in Maryland. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested the House would meet on May 11.
The Capitol has been closed to tourists since mid-March and will remain so through May 16, the House and Senate sergeants at arms announced this week.
‘They Are 100′
Late Friday, Monahan issued six pages of guidelines, telling senators and committees to establish “the minimum necessary personnel to be physically present’’ and rely on phone calls and video conferences instead of “in-person meetings whenever possible.” Face masks are voluntary but “should be promoted at all times,” the guidelines said. Employees must take their temperature each day before coming to work.
Still, there will be less uniformity in how individual senators and the two parties conduct business. Pelosi has declined to second-guess McConnell’s decision — saying “they are 100, we’re four times that” — some Senate Democrats argue not only that it’s unsafe to return now but senseless with no new virus relief package on the agenda.
“There is no way to do this without increased risk,” Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who at age 86 is the oldest senator, said in an April 29 statement. “This is the wrong example for the country.’’
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said her staff would continue to work remotely while she would stay in her D.C. apartment, traveling to the Capitol only for votes. Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow said they plan to keep office staffing to a minimum to encourage social distancing.
“I do think it’s, on a public health basis, very inadvisable of the majority leader to call us back,” Baldwin told MSNBC. “We have been actually quite efficient teleworking from home, and we have been very productive.”
A spokesman for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said his Washington office will continue to telework until mid-May, although necessary staff will be in the office next week wearing masks and social distancing. Kansas Republican Pat Roberts plans on having reduced staff in his office.
What About Testing?
In a letter by several Democrats to McConnell this week asking for additional safety protocols, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) sought items including protection shields at cash registers and full cleaning of the Capitol if an infected person enters.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also asked McConnell in a letter about temperature checks and testing.
“Without effective safeguards in place, Mitch McConnell is endangering the lives of the staff who work there — including many of my constituents — and undermining regional efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” he said in a statement.
To press their point about health safety, Senate Democrats will refrain from gathering for weekly caucus lunches, which they usually hold in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room off the Senate floor. Instead they’ll hold a conference call for the caucus, said a leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The 53 Republicans are planning their weekly lunch for a large hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building, where they can sit at tables and chairs set up for social distancing.
McConnell told colleagues he would provide more guidance on Senate pandemic protocols, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters Thursday, according to a pool report by Fox News and NBC reporters.
“I don’t begrudge a senator expressing their personal concerns, but that shouldn’t mean the entire Senate ceases to function,’’ he said. The Senate will work “really very hard to make sure everybody is safe, and not exposed.”