Concerns mount on Capitol Hill as lawmakers catch virus

Washington (AFP) –


With two US lawmakers testing positive for coronavirus and others entering quarantine Thursday, concerns are mounting in Congress -- where 200 members are 65 or older -- over the pandemic's impact on Capitol Hill.

There are 10,700 confirmed cases across the United States and more than 150 deaths. The crisis is far greater in American hotspots like New York City and Seattle.

But institutional Washington is not immune, and fears have grown in the halls of the Capitol, where lawmakers have been conducting votes in the Senate chamber and House of Representatives -- often in close quarters.

As the crisis swells, Congress has begun adjusting its centuries-old procedures for voting to accommodate social distancing guidelines.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced Thursday that no further votes will be held in the chamber until the House reaches agreement on the next phase of emergency legislation to respond to the economic impact of coronavirus.

"I share the concerns of many Members regarding the number of Members on the House Floor at any one time," Hoyer said in a letter to lawmakers.

"I therefore expect that the House will adjust our voting procedures," he said. "We will be discussing all options."

Seven of the House's 435 members announced on Thursday that they have gone into self-imposed quarantine after meeting with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

For some, that person was Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida representative who on Wednesday became the first member of Congress to test positive for the virus.

"While I have no symptoms and feel fine, I was around him for an extended period last week," Oklahoma congressman Tom Cole said as he announced he is in self-quarantine until March 27.

Congressional duties already may have placed many others at risk.

Diaz-Balart and the other congressman who tested positive, Ben McAdams of Utah, both voted late last Friday on a multi-billion-dollar coronavirus relief package.

Since all congressional voting is done in person, there is a likelihood they came in close proximity with several other lawmakers during the vote, when the pair already may have been infected.

"Everybody is a little concerned about everything that's going on," a House staff member, conducting her work in a Capitol office that remains open, told AFP on condition of anonymity because she is not allowed to speak to media on the record.

"We're all trying to reduce the footprint in the Capitol."

- 'Too close' -

With a handful of staffers having contracted COVID-19, several congressional offices have shut their doors and imposed telework rules for staff.

"There are many, many members' offices that are closed" in the US Capitol complex, the staffer said.

Hallways in the Capitol were largely empty Thursday. Photographers had the historic Rotunda, often clogged with tour groups, to themselves.

On Wednesday, the Senate held an important vote to pass the House's emergency coronavirus legislation, and top Republican Mitch McConnell imposed new rules in a bid to reduce social contacts on the Senate floor.

He extended the length of the day's roll call votes, normally a minimum of 15 minutes each, to 30 minutes to allow senators a safe distance from each other.

Not everyone was following the orders, and some senators were seen congregating several times during votes.

President Donald Trump said Thursday he was aware of those lawmakers ill with the virus or under quarantine.

"It is a tough one," Trump said.

"Hopefully they're all going to get better. It's one of those things. It's Congress."

But the president praised lawmakers for going into quarantine when needed, adding, "Congress has behaved unbelievably well in that regard."

Trump was addressing reporters at a now-daily briefing of his coronavirus task force, whose members filed into the briefing room and stood relatively close to one another near the podium.

Even as half of the briefing room's chairs were blocked off to allow for more space between journalists, Trump suggested the social distancing was insufficient.

"You're actually sitting too close," he said.