Virus Concerns Complicate Capitol Hill’s Return-to-Office Plans

  • House, Senate were slowly implementing RTO plans
  • Patchwork of arrangements seen across Hill complex

Warnings that lawmakers should again don masks in response to the Covid-19 delta variant’s threat threw another monkey wrench into attempts to resume normal operations on Capitol Hill and raised fresh concerns that congressional return-to-office plans are months away from being fully in place.

Just as the complex appeared to be opening up more to guests, the Capitol’s Office of the Attending Physician reissued a new mask mandate for the House, and the Senate was urged to resume the practice. Some lawmakers said the development will add more confusion to the efforts to get all staff back that in many cases only began within the past several weeks.

There are wide discrepancies in how lawmakers are handling operations, hearings, and guidelines for returning to the office, or RTO, even within the two parties. Lawmakers will soon be gone for the August recess and may not return until mid-September, but what kind of environment lawmakers and staff in both chambers come back to is as hazy as ever.

In the House, proxy voting and virtual hearings are likely to continue into the fall, and some members are having staff continue to work remotely. All 100 senators and many of their staffers are at work.

“We’re bringing them back only on a phased-in basis,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of staffers amid new concerns about the delta variant. “We’re taking the advice from the public health experts and we don’t want to endanger anyone.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said his staff returned in early June after being vaccinated but that there’s no overall plan for Senate offices to follow. He said the latest mask recommendation doesn’t help matters.

“It all sounds pretty ad hoc right now,” Cornyn said of Senate RTO plans. “And I suspect there is going to be a significant backlash associated with the mask controversy.”

Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) arrives to speak to members of the media at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Slow Start for RTO

Political divisions over mask wearing were quickly on display in both chambers after the new guidance was released. Democratic leaders immediately began wearing them again as their Republican counterparts held back. In the House, the renewed regulations led to at least one thrown mask and further sharp comments between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Even before the mask mandate was reinstated, many offices were still piecing together what a return to normal would look like. While some continued to encourage staff to work from home, others were back completely. Some adopted a rotating schedule, allowing staffers to be in the office a few times a week, but not all at once.

“We’re rolling with it and kind of figuring it out as we’re moving on things, what the next steps are,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who staged a protest over the revived mask mandate on the House floor, said he allowed any staffer who felt comfortable coming in the office to do so since last May.

In the Senate, Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leading opponent of mandatory vaccines and mask mandates, said his office managed to keep regular office hours for most of the last year and a half, although many others didn’t. The staff of Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) rotated office duty but all were back by mid-winter. While it wasn’t mandatory, Capito said all her aides eventually chose to be vaccinated.

Other lawmakers in both parties said they’re taking things more slowly.

Cornyn said his staff returned to the Capitol complex this summer, “but we said everybody had to be vaccinated and had to wear a mask.” He’s been waiting for more direction from the Senate Rules Committee that would create a uniform approach among the offices.

Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said the physician’s recommendation would stand as the primary guidance for senators. Within her party, plans vary greatly.

Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had many of his staff members working from home well into this spring. But the head of the tax-writing committee said he’s been surrounded by aides during long sessions in the Capitol that were required to hammer out details on Democrats’ infrastructure plans.

“I was getting calls from senators all through the weekend and staff was coming in and out presenting materials, and they did that constantly,” Wyden said. “I expect that it’s going to go on for some time.”

Small Business Committee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said his own staff only started to come back to the Capitol Hill office after the July 4 recess. He said all staff are required to be fully vaccinated and are tested daily to ensure no one has symptoms of the virus. Masks already were required of staff unless they are alone at their desks, he said.

“If they’re in groups they’re going to be masked, and if they are traveling in our Capitol or in the office they’re masked,” he said.

Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Brian Monahan, Congress attending physician, center, wears a protective mask while arriving to a House Republican Conference meeting at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Public Access

Restrictions remain that limit public access to the Capitol and House and Senate office buildings. Public tours are still on hold, but lawmakers said visitors—including lobbyists—increasingly are seen around the complex.

“Most of them are either from a business or association or a charity,” Paul said. “We still see them in person when they want to come in.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) helped a family of four from Pierre in his home state visit the Capitol this week. Sen. Dan Sullivan(R-Alaska) said he recently welcomed some Alaskan Native Community members from the North Slope, his state’s northernmost borough.

“This group that came today flew over 5,000 miles,” Sullivan said. “When they do that it’s good that their representative meets with them personally.”

Read More: Virtual Hearings on Capitol Hill Likely to Outlast the Pandemic

Sullivan said the group came to testify in person at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the effect of federal government activity on the North Slope community. The July 22 session was held in the committee’s regular hearing room, and lawmakers sat side by side at normal distances without masks.

That hearing, along with others held recently at the Finance and Energy and Natural Resources committees, appear at odds with guidelines developed in consultation with the physician’s office, the Rules panel, and the Senate Sergeant at Arms that called for maintaining six feet of social distance spacing in hearing rooms. At Finance, Wyden led hearings where neither lawmakers nor staff wore masks.

In contrast, Durbin is overseeing business meetings as chair of the Judiciary Committee in the largest of Senate hearing rooms where lawmakers sit spread out at large distances.

In the Senate virtual hearings have been on the decline. But that could soon change.

The recent return of the mask mandate led the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to immediately cancel plans to hold a hearing in its regular room. Instead, it gave notice that the Thursday session on NASA’s infrastructure needs would be online via videoconferencing.

To contact the reporters on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com; Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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