Pelosi Tells House Democrats to Keep Working Despite Coronavirus
WASHINGTON —Speaker Nancy Pelosi told attendees at the House Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday morning that they should stay at work as “captains of the ship” this week as Capitol Hill scrambles to respond to the coronavirus.
Among the items under consideration will be the still ill-defined economic aid package the House is drafting to help lessen the potential economic blow from the virus outbreak.
Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said the measure will include some kind of expanded paid leave unemployment insurance as well as funding to cover medical tests for individuals without appropriate insurance coverage.
Depending on how quickly the measure comes together, it could go to the House floor as early as Thursday, but otherwise would wait until lawmakers return from next week’s scheduled recess.
In the meantime, President Donald Trump was to travel to the Hill Tuesday to confer with Senate Republicans on his request that they pass payroll cuts or other tax relief to calm the economic turmoil that has accompanied the spread of the virus.
Trump’s proposal also reportedly includes assistance for hourly workers who have gotten sick or otherwise been adversely impacted by the outbreak.
On Tuesday morning, House Democrats were briefed behind closed doors by Brian Monahan, the attending physician for Congress, the Capitol Hill Police, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chair of the House Administration Committee, among others.
Monahan advised the lawmakers to practice “social distancing” by avoiding all physical contact, like shaking hands, and keeping a minimum of six feet between themselves and others.
At one point Monahan joked that his preferred greeting is Mr. Spock’s live-long-and-prosper hand gesture — with spread middle fingers — from Star Trek.
But some lawmakers were said to have not appreciated the humor.
Rep. Jerold Nadler, D-N.Y., is said to have risen to tell his colleagues that he thought they should leave Washington as soon as possible and return to their districts, where it would be easier to minimize their contact with the public.
But Pelosi immediately rejected the suggestion. That’s when she repeated a line said moments earlier by Rep. Miki Sherrill, D-N.J., a former Navy helicopter pilot.
“We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” Pelosi said.
Pressure has been mounting on House leaders to take steps to prevent a coronavirus outbreak on Capitol Hill, where as many as two-thirds of senators are above 60 years of age.
The advanced age of so many lawmakers is a concern because older adults, especially those with existing medical conditions, are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans older than 60 to avoid crowds.
At least 27 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States.
For the sake of comparison, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that so far this flu season at least 34 million Americans have come down with the flu, causing 350,000 to be hospitalized and over 20,000 deaths.
The oldest members of each chamber are Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. They both will turn 87 in June.
Pelosi will turn 80 next week, the same age as Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who is currently battling cancer.
Nadler is 72, much closer to the average House member age of 57.6 years, but he has had an asthmatic condition for years that still requires him to use an inhaler daily.
His wife is also undergoing chemotherapy in New York, and he is said to be gravely concerned that if he’s unknowingly exposed to the coronavirus, he might bring it home to her.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida summed up the situation by telling Roll Call, simply, “We’re struggling.”
“We have a very diverse and disparate work environment. But we also have a responsibility to make sure that we are able to effectively represent our constituents and make sure they get the information that they need,” she said.
Reps. Lofgren and Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking member of the House Administration Committee told their colleagues they’d purchased 1,500 new laptop computers for distribution to member offices, a move designed to empower more staff to work from home without violating security guidelines.
And more laptops are on the way, they said.
“We are advising, in a bipartisan way, that every single office needs to have a continuity-of-operations plan,” Davis said. “That’s why the equipment purchases are necessary right now. Be ready. Be prepared. We don’t want anybody to shut down their ability to serve their constituents in their offices here in D.C., or be it in the district. Plan now. Have that plan in place.”
A technology bar has been set up in the cafeteria of the Rayburn House Office Building to advise offices on how to meet their telecommuting needs.
Davis also told his colleagues that the Architect of the Capitol has taken steps to sanitize the Capitol complex, including elevators, handrails and door knobs more frequently.
Bathrooms are also being cleaned more often, more hand sanitizer will be available and there will be more signs in the bathroom about proper hand-washing protocol, he said.
In addition, the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol are working to make sure all security screening equipment is cleaned.
So far, seven lawmakers have announced they have been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
Six Republicans were exposed to a single person with the novel coronavirus at the Conservative Political Action Conference held late last month at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Maryland.
Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said she met in Washington last week with someone later diagnosed with the virus.
None of the lawmakers, or their staffers who were also exposed, have reported any symptoms of the disease.
Nevertheless, five of the Republicans — Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Reps. Doug Collins, of Georgia, Matt Gaetz, of Florida, Paul Gosar, of Arizona and Mark Meadows, of North Carolina –said they would self-quarantine.
Gosar said three of his senior staff members who also spent time with the individual were taking similar measures. Two of Collins’ staffers were doing the same.
Meanwhile, Brownley said she and her staff would work remotely and engage in “self-monitoring and maintaining social distancing practices.”
Brownley closed her Washington office for the week.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, the other Republican lawmaker exposed to the person at CPAC, was back at work on Capitol Hill on Monday.
He said on Twitter that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official “advised that my staff and I should just be careful to observe proper hygiene protocols. I took the advice of the expert and returned to work. No one is panicking and we are observing the recommended precautions.”
For all this, the city’s first presumptive positive case of the coronavirus, is that of the Rev. Timothy Cole, of Christ Church in Georgetown.
Cole oversaw three services attended by about 550 people, according to church officials.
It’s unclear how many of those made direct contact with him.
“We recognize this situation is fluid. Every day we will monitor the situation,” Muriel Bowser said during the news conference. “We put the safety of residents first. We are following the science about how we will proceed.”
Church officials are asking anyone who attended services on Feb. 24 or between Feb. 28 and March 3 to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Christ Church has also suspended all services and activities until further notice.
Bowser said anyone who develops symptoms, including fever, cough and/or shortness of breath, should call D.C. Health immediately.
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