WASHINGTON — One day this month, housebound and tired of the endless conference calls that have defined his existence during the coronavirus crisis, Representative Jesús G. Garcia put on a bright-red hooded sweatshirt and jeans, grabbed a shovel and hoe and headed for the little yard adjoining his home in southwest Chicago.
“I said, ‘Come on, shoot me,’” said Mr. Garcia, a freshman Democrat who goes by the nickname Chuy, describing how he told his wife to take video of the scene. “She said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I said, ‘Just film.’”
The result was “Gardening With Chuy,” a one-minute and 57-second Facebook and Instagram video set to music. Part pep talk, part public service announcement, it featured Mr. Garcia offering planting tips and life advice on how to “be creative around our homes” and keep “a good attitude about beating back the coronavirus.”
With the Capitol shuttered until at least early May and the House now considering instituting remote voting to facilitate a more prolonged absence from Washington, members of Congress are sequestered at home like the rest of America, forced to reimagine how to do their jobs virtually. It is a singular challenge for lawmakers, whose tasks typically revolve around human contact with a rotating cast of constituents, staff, lobbyists and fellow lawmakers. They have come up with creative (some more than others) solutions.
Here’s a look at how Congress is working from home:
Now Recording: Representative Mike Gallagher
All it took for Representative Mike Gallagher to turn the unfinished basement of his Green Bay, Wis., home into what he call his “command center” was a webcam, backlighting and a basic microphone, borrowed from his wife, the actress Anne Horak Gallagher. Some mismatched bookshelves and a well-placed Packers jersey livened up the shot.
A podcast was born.
The name of the show, “NEW Look,” is a reference to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s national security policy and to northeast Wisconsin. But Mr. Gallagher, 36, said the point was to try to bring his constituents high-quality information about the virus, and how to cope with it, at a time when misinformation has been circulating rampantly.
“I don’t know, it’s just another way to provide what I think is useful and solid information to the people I represent, while nerding out on obscure Eisenhower stuff no one else cares about,” said Mr. Gallagher, a second-term Republican and former Marine who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the 34th president.
One recent episode featured a conversation on Stoic philosophy during a pandemic. In others, Mr. Gallagher has interviewed health or biology experts. Just offscreen is a makeshift gym he assembled when he stopped going to his local CrossFit studio — an attempt to try to stay clearheaded as he works from home.
Download numbers have been modest. But Mr. Gallagher insists that the thick of a crisis is no time to worry about burnishing a following.
“That has kind of all gone by the wayside,” he said.
The Senator Above the Garage: Senator Angus King
Given social distancing requirements to slow the spread of the virus, it is no longer possible for lawmakers to hold their customary town-hall-style meetings. Some have turned to teleconferences, drawing thousands of constituents. Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, has found — somewhat accidentally — that the great outdoors will do, too.
Who needs a town hall when you have a wide-open field?
“It is a little bit awkward to be six feet or eight feet or 10 feet apart, but you can still communicate,” Mr. King, 76, said of his open-air encounters with business leaders, a former state attorney general and other residents of his hometown, Brunswick, as he traverses its open spaces.
Upon returning from Washington last month, Mr. King took up residence in the Brunswick Inn out of an abundance of caution, and later moved to an empty apartment above his garage before moving back into his house. Mr. King and his wife, Mary Herman, regularly take socially distant walks to stretch their legs, and he says the interruptions have been welcome.
Mr. King, a former governor, said the outbreak had stirred memories of a crippling ice storm in Maine in 1998 that knocked out power for at least half of the state’s residents amid deadly cold. In that case, neighbors and families had to take care of one another.
“The government has an important role to play in supporting the economy, finding a vaccine, supporting the supply chain for personal protective gear,” Mr. King said. “But ultimately, it is up to us as individuals to limit the spread of this disease.”
Home School and Social Work: Representative Jahana Hayes
Before she ran for Congress, Representative Jahana Hayes, Democrat of Connecticut, was named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. Now, Ms. Hayes, a freshman congresswoman, is dusting off her teaching skills with her own son, while working marathon days.
Her office, technically on the fourth floor of the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, can be found these days on a cluttered folding table in the living room of her Wolcott, Conn., home. Her son, Myles, 11, is occupying her regular desk. Ms. Hayes, 47, works at a crowded spare table she hauled in from the shed.
“All of it is happening all at once,” she said. “There are days when I have had eight hours straight of conference calls, and then I spend three hours before going to bed catching up on emails, letters or proposed legislation that my staff has sent during the day.”
When one call ends, Ms. Hayes will often snap a photograph of her notes and text it to staff members for follow-up before she starts her next.
Aside from drive-in church services, Ms. Hayes’s world — which used to include weekly trips to the nation’s capital — has now narrowed considerably, to her home and yard. Exercise comes in bursts of square laps around her deck and occasional virtual yoga classes, led by a constituent. When she has the time, she imagines how all these new ways of connecting remotely will change the institution in which she serves.
Much of the time, her day resembles social work. Every couple of days, Ms. Hayes and her aides each pick five people, organizations or businesses to personally call and check in on, in addition to fielding the incoming calls flooding her office lines for help applying for unemployment benefits or small-business loans. In one case, a nursing home just needed to find toilet paper. Ms. Hayes went and bought it herself.
“You can hear the desperation in their voices,” she said, “because oftentimes, they don’t know who else to call.”
The Not-Very-Secret Diary of Representative Debbie Dingell.
Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, has never been one to keep her feelings inside. But the coronavirus pandemic has her sharing her innermost thoughts (and body-temperature readings) in public, in an intimate diary posted on her Facebook page.
“Day 31,” she wrote Wednesday morning, offering a recap of Tuesday. “Temperature 97.5. Sleep very elusive tonight and don’t even know why. I think the pacing in this house, living on the phone, never stop moving even when on the phone, gray temples and the worse looking nails you have ever seen may be getting to me.”
Mrs. Dingell, 66, has lived alone since her husband, the former congressman John D. Dingell, died last year, and her entries make clear how much she misses other people — “mornings with the boys at Starbucks”; “union halls where the guys and gals are real”; “my veterans and their stories.”
The information she shares runs the gamut, be it an Easter missive from her mother or a report on her efforts to help auto plant workers and hospitals and nurses who lack the proper protective equipment. On a recent day, she included questions submitted during her virtual town-hall-style meeting with Toyota employees, including: “Can we get FDA approval for Ford’s N-95 Masks. Someone has respirators….do we have someone that would pay for them.”
She has turned her kitchen into an office, she said in an interview, noting that the room has big windows and she likes to see people walking past outside. She works with three telephones — a hard line and two cellphones — two iPads that belonged to her husband, and two of her own. On Wednesday, she said, she learned how to do two Zoom conference calls at once.
“I never stop talking,” she said.
‘I Want to Do What I’ve Done for 40 Years’: Senator Charles Grassley
Holed up on his farm in New Hartford, Iowa, Senator Charles E. Grassley, 86, does not see much upside to Zoom. He has tried FaceTime for some family check-ins, but not for official business. No, for the longest-serving Senate Republican, the phone does quite nicely.
“I am trying to keep in touch with everything I would normally do through long distance,” he said the other day. He ticked through a dozen or so recent calls: to local TV and radio stations, with Iowa cattlemen and the state’s pork producers.
Mr. Grassley, accustomed to predawn runs in Washington, has started jogging in the afternoon sun. Last weekend, when the family farm would normally have been overrun by four generations of Grassleys, he and his wife quietly prayed at home alone and logged onto FaceTime to share the Easter holiday.
Other traditions cannot be digitized. Every year since at least 1981, Mr. Grassley has made a point of convening a town meeting in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties to face voters who set the agenda of each session. This year, he was only able to complete about a dozen before the virus froze his state in place.
“I sometimes do telephone town halls, but I have never had them take the place of a county meeting, because I want to do what I have done for 40 years,” he said. “I want to be physically in every county.”