'Like preparing for a hurricane': Lawmakers worry about coronavirus hitting them while helping manage response
WASHINGTON – After casting a vote in the House on Monday, Rep. Lois Frankel used a tissue to open a chamber door and exit the floor.
She showed off a small bottle of hand sanitizer stowed in her purse, a product that has become a prized possession after selling out in stores.
Frankel is also washing her hands – "a lot" – while worrying about how the rapidly spreading coronavirus will affect families, communities, businesses and the economy.
"It's like preparing for a hurricane," the Florida Democrat said, "which is, you've got to be prepared and hope for the best."
Those winds could blow powerfully through the halls of Congress where many – like the 71-year-old Frankel – are in the at-risk age bracket. Their jobs are all about public interaction and frequent travel. Handshakes are the coin of the realm. Millions of tourists, constituents and lobbyists visit each year and spring is the busiest season.
Anxiety has been rising on Capitol Hill as at least half a dozen lawmakers who've come in contact with an infected person are self-quarantining – including North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows who is about to become President Donald Trump's chief of staff – with a few closing their offices.
Staying in session
Congressional leaders have so far decided not to temporarily recess.
"At the present time, there is no reason for us not to continue with our vital legislative work in the Capitol," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote to lawmakers Monday night.
She'd already noted to reporters last week that while some work can be done remotely, "We can't vote from home."
And she reinforced that to her colleagues at Democrats' closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday.
“We are the captains of the ship," she said, according to two Democratic sources. "We are the last to leave."
But Capitol Hill's health and safety officials continue to monitor the fast moving situation. Lawmakers were scheduled to be briefed by officials Tuesday and President Donald Trump was scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers on a stimulus package aimed at curbing the impacts of coronavirus.
CDC Director Robert Redfield told lawmakers Tuesday that the nation had “underinvested” in public health labs and hospitals are already nearly at full capacity for dealing with flu victims with respiratory problems.
“We really don’t have a lot of resiliency in the capacity of our health care system,” he said.
Hard habits to break
Some were already taking action on their own. They've turned town hall meetings into Facebook Live events or teleconferences, limited travel and meetings, figured out alternative forms of greeting and encouraged staff to work from home.
A note on the office door of Rep. Pete Aguilar announces the California Democrat and his staff are "foregoing all handshakes."
Instead, they recommend “a polite elbow bump” or a “friendly wave” or even “a full rendition of Adele’s 2015 hit, ‘Hello.’”
But Sen. Tim Kaine was among the lawmakers finding shaking hands a "hard habit to break.”
“We are in a profession where we are with a ton of people and we are interacting with them,” said the Virginia Democrat. “It’s challenging.”
An easier step for Kaine was doubling the amount of sick time each employee receives.
“I don't want anyone feeling a little bit sick and then [saying] ‘I don’t have a sick day, I should come in,'" he explained.
Cutting back on travel, meetings
Rep Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the No. 3 House Republican, skipped a House Republican leadership retreat over the weekend in an attempt to limit attendance at non-critical meetings.
“Many of us have people in our families who are particularly vulnerable and, after consulting with physicians, Liz determined the best approach is to limit participation in non-essential gatherings,” her spokesman, Jeremy Adler, said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., is trying to cut down on any unnecessary traveling noting that at 85-years-old, he is in the age group that is most at risk.
“I think the main thing is, life goes on and we try to carry on but this is a real concern in the world for all of us,” he said. “We just have to be alert. Don't panic and be smart.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people over 60 and those with underlying health problems to avoid large crowds. The average age in the Senate is 63. In the House, it's a spry 58.
“I just don’t see how you make all of these folks get on a plane twice a week,” said a senior Democratic aide said, adding that some members are worried about their health and “they should be.”
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Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, 58, said he’s washed or sanitized his hands “probably 10 times today.”
Focusing on coronavirus
Lawmakers have to worry about not being conduits or recipients of the virus while working on the nation's response to the outbreak.
Multiple coronavirus-related hearings are scheduled for this week.
Congressional check writers on Tuesday grilled the head of the CDC over how it's handling of the crisis and the administration's proposed budget cuts for the agency.
CDC Director Robert Redfield told lawmakers that the nation had “underinvested” in public health labs and hospitals are already nearly at full capacity for dealing with flu victims with respiratory problems.
“We really don’t have a lot of resiliency in the capacity of our health care system,” he testified.
Members of the House Homeland Security Committee are asking how state health officials view the situation and want to hear how federal officials are responding.
Other panels are examining travel insurance for virus-related cancellations as well as the effects of the virus on small businesses and on their supply chains.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Senate Finance Committee, is considering targeted tax relief measures.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., released Sunday a list of actions they say are needed to help families get through the outbreak, including enhanced unemployment benefits and free testing and treatment for the virus. The package may be introduced this week though not necessarily not voted on.
"If members of Congress can go on self imposed quarantine and still get paid," Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., tweeted Monday, "It only makes sense that Congress should pass emergency laws to give paid sick leave to every American until this emergency is over."
Gallego's Arizona colleague, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, was among those who, at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, came in contact with a person who later tested positive for the virus.
Gosar closed his office "out of an abundance of caution" and is self-quarantining at home as are three senior members of his staff.
"I'm doing my reading, doing interviews," Gosar told Fox News.
He's also tweeting.
"Been thinking about life and mortality today," he tweeted Monday, along with a photo of armored warriors in bloody battle, inspiring a meme. "I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does."
Flashbacks to 2001
Some who were in Washington for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the letters containing anthrax spores that were mailed to Democratic senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy weeks later, were having flashbacks.
"This feels like November of 2001," said Brad Fitch, head of the Congressional Management Foundation. "You had uncertainty both (about) your personal future and your office’s future and your capability to continue delivering services.”
A Senate office building and a few House offices – including that of now Vice President Mike Pence who is leading the administration's response to the coronavirus – were closed for months.
Daschle, who’s spoken to a number of lawmakers in recent days, said he’s “heartened” by the serious approach members have taken.
“Frankly I applaud those members who have been exposed to coronavirus in different events over the last couple of weeks who self-quarantine. I think it’s the right thing to do,” the former Democratic Senate leader told USA TODAY.
Fitch, whose foundation works both with congressional offices to improve operations and with citizen groups to be effective advocates, is aware of multiple groups that have cancelled planned visits. One group whose members had already flown in from all over the country decided once they got to Washington to replace the planned in-person meetings with phone calls.
"This is the busiest season for fly-ins," Fitch said, noting the groups can be as large as 1,000 or more. "No group wants to either expose their own membership by asking them to get on a plane, or the Congress."
Whether Congress should recess for an extended period is a judgment call that should be guided by health professionals, Daschle said.
“There’s a balance there,” he said. “It can’t be businesses a usual. But at the same time, there is the possibility of overreaction. So finding that balance and doing what appears to be the most prudent is critical and that’s a leadership call and a science call.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said he felt a bit concerned returning to Washington Monday after watching the news and seeing several of his colleagues had come into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
"It does create a kind of depression," Cohen said. "You get a little bit down about it.”
But while some members were calling for Congress to take a break, Cohen said he trusts the speaker to make the right call.
“I think Nancy Pelosi knows best,” he said with a smile. “She's my congressional mother. She says it's time to go home, I'll go home. She says it's time to come to school, I’m coming to school.”
Contributing: Ledyard King, USA TODAY.
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