Capitol halts public tours as it gets its first coronavirus case
Washington, DC, March 11, 2020 | Politico
Speaker Nancy Pelosi informed members of the decision in a Wednesday afternoon meeting, which is intended to help prevent the spread of the virus across the sprawling Capitol campus, where many senior-aged lawmakers are already at higher risk. The restriction applies to all tours — public, staff-led and member-led.
By the end of the week, the Capitol complex will be restricted to official business only, people familiar with the decision said.
The move — which was made jointly by congressional leaders, Capitol security officials and medical staff — comes amid mounting pressure from lawmakers and aides to restrict public access to the building.
No change to the legislative schedule has been announced. Both the House and Senate are slated to leave Washington for a week-long recess starting Thursday, and are tentatively expected to return as planned on March 23. The decision to return will be made sometime next week, again in consultation with the top four congressional leaders and other Capitol security offices.
The announcement to stop all tours comes hours after Democrats and Republicans alike were vocally complaining that the U.S. Capitol should be far more restrictive of public access.
Many lawmakers said they felt uneasy about throngs of tour groups and lobbyists continuing to shuffle between offices on a daily basis, defying guidance from U.S. public health agencies even as churches, schools and businesses were shuttering across Washington.
“We’re not practicing what we’re preaching,” said freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who became so frustrated at the sense of normalcy in the Capitol that he sought out House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on the floor earlier on Wednesday to air his concerns.
"We should encourage people to not travel here right now. I would argue we are part of the problem," Phillips said.
The No. 3 Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), agreed, telling reporters: "I think it would be prudent at this point to stop the tours until a time when we feel that those can be done in a way that doesn’t affect the health of the tourists at risk."
The U.S. Capitol is expected to remain open for lawmakers, aides and other essential services.
Pelosi had been adamant in public and private that lawmakers should remain at the Capitol for legislative business, keenly aware of the wave of panic that could result from shuttering the doors. Others, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have agreed, with some lawmakers quietly acknowledging the political — not to mention economic — risks of appearing to lock down the Capitol at a time of crisis.
But with the CDC and D.C. public health department now urging people to avoid large gatherings — and the Capitol’s own doctor putting out similar advice on Wednesday — some lawmakers said keeping the massive campus open is at odds with the nation's public health guidance.
Congressional leaders have acknowledged they must perform a balancing act, cognizant of the crucial role that Congress plays in signaling calm to the nation, but also attempting to eliminate any unnecessary risk to members, staff and the general public.
“There’s some value to projecting confidence, and, but there's also some value to being smart, prudent and diligent. We are the nerve center of the world. Sometimes you have to act," Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said Wednesday.
More than 1,000 people in the U.S. have tested positive for coronavirus in at least 38 states, and more than two dozen have died. The World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak is a pandemic, and the nation’s top health officials warn there will be many more cases.
Throughout the week, House and Senate offices have decided on a case by case based to cancel tours or opt for online meetings, without a blanket policy. Dozens of lawmakers and aides say their offices have been increasingly moving in that direction as the U.S. caseload mounts.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), for example, said his office has already elected to stop giving Capitol tours to constituents — a move that he says “should have happened yesterday” in Congress. Moulton even shared a list of his office’s mitigation protocols with other House Democrats in hopes of setting an example.
“As soon as I walked on the floor, several people came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we saw what you’re doing, we want to adopt that as well,’” Moulton said.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said the guidance from leadership had been to let each individual office decide on whether to hold tours, though he had already decided on Wednesday afternoon to halt the tours until the coronavirus concerns abate.
But, he added, it would be helpful for congressional leaders to make a decision and issue a blanket policy instead of leaving all 535 offices to make their own choice.
“If everybody were on the same position or policy, it would probably make a much more profound statement to the nation,” he added. “It may even cause people to take [the virus] a bit more seriously.”
Meanwhile, inside the Capitol, lawmakers have mostly continued to shake hands, or even hug, each other on the floor and in the hallways during votes, ignoring orders from the Capitol doctor on Wednesday to avoid close contact with constituents.
That includes Pelosi, who paused on her way to the House chamber on Wednesday to pose for a picture at the center of a large group of tourists, hours after the attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, directed lawmakers to "adopt a stance that avoids close direct contact with other individuals, such as shaking hands, giving/receiving hugs, taking selfies, etc."
One day earlier, however, Pelosi was spotted exchanging “elbow bumps” with visitors at an event celebrating the Affordable Care Act.
Monahan also recommended that all Capitol visitors be screened for respiratory illnesses before coming into close proximity with lawmakers, which lawmakers have implemented in their own offices on a case-by-case basis. Members should avoid "mingling through large crowds of people," he added.
All four congressional leaders — Pelosi, McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — met last week to discuss safety of the U.S. Capitol in the case of an outbreak. All had agreed then to keep the campus open, though aides have acknowledged the crisis is unfolding rapidly and the situation could change quickly.
“That may be a step we need to take,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday when asked about ending tours. “It’s a step we would be reluctant to take and we’d be very cognizant of the fact that this is the people’s Capitol, the people’s House.”
McCarthy said Wednesday that he believes Congress should stay in session and members should remain in D.C., but added that he and other House leaders are monitoring the situation.
“We meet everyday, we have the experts analyzing each day.” McCarthy told reporters. “I think, right now, we should stay in session. We can monitor that day by day.”