Capitol to Suspend Public Tours, Limit Public Access Due to Coronavirus

March 12, 2020 by Dan McCue
Despite coronavirus fears, tourists crowded the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, March 12, 2020. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Public tours of the Capitol building are being suspended — at least through the end of March — in response to the novel coronavirus.

In a joint statement, House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving, and Senate Sergeant of Arms Michael C. Stenger, said the Capitol visitor center would be closed to tours beginning at 5 p.m. Thursday evening, and will remain so until Wednesday, April 1, at 8 a.m.

In addition, they said, access to the Capitol, and the House and Senate Office Buildings, will be limited to House and Senate members, their staff, credentialed media and official business visitors during the same period.

Irving and Stenger said the action was being taken following a recommendation from DC Health and in consultation with Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician of the U.S. Congress, as well as other members of the area’s medical community.

Earlier this week health officials in Washington, D.C. recommended canceling or delaying, any “non-essential mass gatherings” of more than 1,000 people such as conferences, conventions and political events until the end of March in an effort to limit the outbreak of the COVID-19.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate moments after the suspension of tours was announced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he “fully supported” the decision.

“Congress will continue to do our work,” McConnell said. “Offices will be able to welcome constituents and visitors for meetings and official business by appointment, but in deference to the experts and to protect the health of the many Americans that travel to our nation’s capital, tourism and non-official access to the Capitol and the complex will be put on pause.

“This is challenging our nation in ways that feel unfamiliar to us, but our great country is strong. We are equipped. And we have overcome far greater challenges before,” he said. “I know the entire Congress will look forward to welcoming all Americans back to visit their beautiful Capitol as soon as possible.”

An estimated 3 million to 5 million people from around the world visit the Capitol each year and the spring is a busy season for school groups, advocacy organizations and tourists to visit.

Majority Leader McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly began discussing the possible closure of the Capitol to tours Wednesday amid growing concerns about the spread of the virus and pressure from lawmakers and their staff.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, as is typical, thousands of visitors jammed the Capitol rotunda, and at one point, Speaker Pelosi herself passed through on the way to a meeting.

Earlier in the day, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Congressional leaders had “not yet come to grips with closing down the Capitol in terms of tourists.”

“It’s a step we’re reluctant to take because we are cognizant of the fact this is the people’s Capitol, the people’s House, the Capitol of the United States of America,” he said.

“On the other hand, if what we’re doing is providing for a more dangerous or more susceptible environment, then we probably ought to take steps to do that,” he said.

Ultimately, a tide of events — from the World Health Organization officially labeling COVID-19 as a pandemic to Washington, D.C., declaring a state of emergency — forced the lawmakers’ hand.

In addition, the office of Sen. Maria Cantwell announced Wednesday that one of her D.C.-based staffers has tested positive for COVID-19 — the first known case on Capitol Hill.

“The individual has been in isolation since starting to have symptoms,” according to a release from Cantwell’s office. “On the advice of the Attending Physician, the senator has closed her Washington, D.C. office this week for deep cleaning and staff will be teleworking.”

The office said the staffer who tested positive has “no known contact with the senator or other members of Congress.”

Cantwell has requested that other staffers who may have been in contact with the infected employee also be tested.

Elsewhere in Washington, the National Cathedral suspended all worship services and is closed until March 25.

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