How Minnesota’s congressional offices are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic
Washington, DC, March 19, 2020 | MinnPost
At least three congressional staffers and two members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus.
As a consequence of the outbreak, the U.S. Capitol Sergeant at Arms has ordered limited access to the Capitol building and members’ offices until April. And all Capitol Visitor Center tours have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.
The Attending Physician of Congress, Dr. Brian Monahan, has directed congressional staff working in offices to telework if they develop symptoms of the coronavirus (COVID-19). And in a letter sent on March 15th, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) encouraged congressional members to promote social distancing within their D.C. office. “This may entail more than half of your Washington staff teleworking from home,” she wrote.
But the Capitol still needs to operate. And members of Congress still need to attend votes in person. Here’s what Minnesota’s members of Congress are doing with their offices — both in D.C. and back in Minnesota — during the coronavirus crisis.
Both of Minnesota’s Senators have staff working throughout the coronavirus outbreak. But where they’re working from is a different story.
Sen. Tina Smith’s offices are on a mandatory telework policy. Smith has directed staff in both the Washington and Minnesota offices to work from home; staff are continuing to hold meetings via phone. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s offices, in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C., are open (although some of her staff are working from home).
“Sen. Klobuchar has been in Washington, DC all week working on coronavirus legislation,” said a representative for Klobuchar’s office. “Both our state and Washington, D.C. offices are open with some people working from home, and we are taking necessary precautions while continuing our work to serve the people of Minnesota.”
Like other offices, Klobuchar’s office says they have suspended group visits. But the ways in which Minnesota’s congressional offices are managing their staff during the pandemic are all different and endemic of the entire congressional response: a patchwork of telework policies, staff still working at the capitol, and infrastructure not set up for remote work.
“On Friday, I … and my chief of staff were the only ones there [in my office]. You know, I want the staff to stay safe,” said Rep. Angie Craig, who represents Minnesota’s Second District. “If you call my D.C. office, it rolls to my staff assistant who normally answers the telephone. If you call that office, she will enter the information, get the call to exactly the same place, it would have gone to.”
Craig said that her office started to try out telework a few days early, so they work out any problems in advance and let staff gather any potentially forgotten items.
“We moved to telework starting Friday in the D.C. office,” she said. “We actually tested it a couple of days earlier last week just to make sure that the staff had all the necessary equipment that they were going to need.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar’s office was also an early adopter of telework, transitioning her offices in both Washington and Minneapolis last Friday. Rep. Pete Stauber’s office told MinnPost that he’s insisted his staff work remotely.
“The Congressman believes that the health of his staff and the American people is of the utmost importance, which is why he has instructed his staff to work remotely and do their part in mitigating the impact of this virus,” said Kelsey Mix, Stauber’s Communications Director. “As always, our staff is working hard on behalf of Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. If folks call our office number, their call will be answered. If they write in, they will receive a response. And if they need assistance with casework, they will receive that help.”
Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents Minnesota’s Seventh District, has closed his physical office in Washington, D.C. and all staff there are teleworking. His communications director, Sue Dieter, said that “his first priority remains the health, safety, and security of his staff and the people who have visited his office.”
Peterson’s district offices in Detroit Lakes, Marshall, Thief River Falls and Willmar are still open, but he’s directed constituents to call ahead and staff have been directed to implement social distancing. “Meetings with the staff will be held virtually whenever possible while we navigate the pandemic situation,” Dieter said.
Other offices said they are operating with significantly less staff. Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents the Sixth District, has limited staff in his offices during the outbreak. Rep. Betty McCollum has an “an in-person, rotating skeleton staff for right now,” according to Amanda Yanchury, her communications director. McCollum said her St. Paul office will operate with limited staff to assist constituents stranded abroad, hear about emergency priorities from the health care sector, and listen to local businesses.
Rep. Dean Phillips, who represents Minnesota’s Third District, has staff in his Minnetonka office working at reduced hours. His DC office remains open, although most staff are working remotely. Like other members Phillips has been creative in his outreach. On Monday, he joined Smith and Minnesota health experts for a coronavirus tele-town hall that had more than 8000 people on the line.
For Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who represents Minnesota’s First District, all three offices in D.C., Mankato and Rochester remain open, although all meetings are conducted over the phone.
“I urge all southern Minnesotans and Americans to exercise caution in their daily lives and avoid unnecessary travel,” he said in a statement to MinnPost. “However, I am encouraged by the fact that Mayo Clinic has successfully developed a test to detect the virus that causes COVID-19 and that we were able to pass a bipartisan relief package in the House to help combat the coronavirus.”
In the House, Pelosi has advised members not to return to DC until a deal is struck on additional coronavirus response legislation. Smith said that in the Senate, she hasn’t heard any guidance on whether or not the voting process will be different. “Unless something is different, senators kind of come in and out. You walk in and give a thumbs up or a thumbs down,” she said, describing the Senate’s voting process. Her concern wasn’t so much senators voting, but the people who staff the Capitol:
“I think especially of the clerks and the staff on the floor of the Senate.”