The atmosphere on Capitol Hill during the past week has been one of increased caution: Absent are visiting tourists and many congressional staffers.
For members of the media who remain, the past couple of days have been especially tense and even surreal: They are trying to cover a massive, unprecedented $2-trillion coronavirus relief bill at the same time that new concerns have been raised about the virus’ spread at the Capitol.
Sen. Rand Paul’s announcement on Sunday that he tested positive for the virus added to the anxiety, forcing his colleagues to retrace their steps and for members of the media to recall their recent interactions with him.
On Tuesday, Emily Cochrane, a congressional reporter for The New York Times, said on Twitter that she is self-quarantining because last week she was in a “scrum” with Paul — “scrum” being a reference to the common practice of reporters surrounding lawmakers to get their comments on a pressing story.
“Doctor told me to do so under an abundance of caution, though I don’t appear to have any symptoms,” Cochrane wrote. She then advised readers to follow a series of other reporters “and the folks still risking their own health to bring us all the news of this deal.”
That need to track down lawmakers and stake out offices — particularly at a moment when Congress is weighing a proposal to rescue the U.S. economy — has to be balanced with the need to take precaution.
“The way I would normally be covering a bill of this magnitude and of this price tag, you typically would want to be chasing senators all around the Hill and grilling them about every detail of this package in person,” said Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News. “But, for their safety in mind, I’m often finding myself keeping my distance. I’m an asthmatic, a lifelong asthmatic, and so that puts me in a higher risk category. And so I really have to think carefully about where I want to go on Capitol Hill and how comfortable I feel about being in some of these large scrums of reporters who have gathered around senators.”
That isn’t always so easy, especially as journalists are trying to catch a lawmaker’s every word in fleeting moments in Capitol corridors. “Often reporters are a pretty respectful distance from the senators,” Cordes said, “but they are not necessarily a respectful distance from one another because they are all gathered around the lawmakers as they come and go, so it is a really tricky situation.”
Chad Pergram, a congressional correspondent at Fox News, said reporters have tried to do more live shots outdoors, limiting their time near others inside, but that is based on the weather.
“As I always say, Congress is a perfect slice of American society,” Pergram said. “And so if you have this virus, it was going to be here.”
He added, “What I think this reflects is just everybody — whether you are a senator or just a lowly journalist up here — everybody is on tinderhooks because coronavirus is equal opportunity. It doesn’t matter who you are. So you try to implement your better practices.”
Pergram said he has been taking extra precautions for several weeks — to the point where, when he goes home each night, he puts his clothes in a plastic bag.
“I kind of undress on the porch — the back porch, I should note — and I put my suit and my tie and everything into a plastic bag so we can take it to the dry cleaner,” he said, “and I put these little hospital things on my shoes so I am not wearing my shoes in the house and they stay outside.” Starting about a month ago, Pergram started bringing in a fresh towel to wrap around his personal items when he needs to set them down on a little stand set aside for TV reporters as they do their live shots.
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When the Sergeant-at-Arms announced that the Capitol would be closed to most visitors starting March 13, that did not include members of the media. Three days later, the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which oversees the press galleries, asked that journalists practice social distancing around the Capitol, particularly when they are scrambling to catch lawmakers for interviews.
“In some cases, lawmakers may be more reluctant to conduct lengthy sessions with large press scrums due to health concerns,” said the note from Sarah Wire of the Los Angeles Times and Leo Shane III of Military Times. “Reporters should be understanding of those worries while at the same time reinforcing the need for proper oversight of our elected officials.”
Out of safety concerns, some news outlets have shifted to reporting remotely. The press galleries include tight workspaces, where reporters work out of cubicles lined up next to one another.
The Capitol police also have taken steps to try to reduce exposure at security checkpoints, with gallon-sized plastic bags being handed out to store personal items.
Cordes says she’s taken to using the bags like a glove, to open doors or touch elevator buttons and other surfaces. She spotted Mitt Romney opening a door using his hand inside a suit coat, before he went into self-quarantine on Sunday out of the fear that he was exposed to Paul. Romney said that he tested negative but would remain in isolation on the advice of a physician.
That’s made the halls of Congress unusually sparse given the buildup for such an important vote.
“You still have to cover the White House. And you still have to cover the Pentagon, and you still have to cover the Capitol, to the degree you can,” Pergram said.
Concerns have only increased in recent days. “My wife, when I come home, she asks, ‘Were you near Rand Paul?’ And I know I wasn’t,” he said. But Pergram said the caution extends to everyday activities, not just the Capitol workplace: When he pumps gas, he’s taken to wrapping his hand in a paper towel.
The tensions on Capitol Hill spilled out on the floor of the Senate on Monday, as lawmakers berated each other after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed to generate enough votes to move the latest version of the relief bill forward. That sent lawmakers into another round of negotiations, with a deal finally reached early on Wednesday morning. The Senate is expected to vote on the package in the afternoon.
A question mark is how the House, with many members out this week in their home districts, will take up the package if it passes the Senate. Two members, Mario Diaz-Ballart and Ben McAdams, announced last week that they tested positive for the coronavirus, which raised concerns over the wisdom of returning lawmakers for a vote. Instead, the aim is to pass the legislation as a motion for unanimous consent, a legislative maneuver usually reserved for non-controversial measures.
“It feels like being on Capitol Hill during an extended recess, rather than being on Capitol Hill at the apex of negotiations over the largest economic rescue package that the Senate will probably ever pass,” Cordes said of the atmosphere.
“So this virus has really been a great leveler,” she added. “But frankly, the challenges I am facing are nothing, for example, compared to what my sister is facing in California. She is an anesthesiologist, and she’s dealing with real life-or-death issues — worrying about having enough protective gear, worried about getting the infection and not only what that would mean for her own health, her family’s health, but also what it means for her patients and being able to continue to do what she has trained for for a lifetime, which is care for people when they are sick.”
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