Capitol Hill braces for coronavirus contingencies, politicians consider world without handshakes

Capitol Hill braces for coronavirus contingencies, politicians consider world without handshakes

Coronavirus makes you worry about the little things on Capitol Hill.

The elevator button in the Senate basement. That door handle at the House Carriage Entrance. The fork dispenser in the Longworth cafeteria.

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What about those hard, plastic bowls positioned at every entrance to the Capitol complex? Everyone but lawmakers themselves and U.S. Capitol Police officers must dump their keys and phones into the bowls before passing through security.

How often do they clean the bowls? Have they been cleaned? Like….ever?

“Never,” offered one informed source. “Absolutely not.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) conducted a conclave with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) Wednesday on Congressional operations if coronavirus tears through Capitol Hill.

“Their offices want to try to figure out if there is consensus among the leaders and what their positions are if things go south,” said one source who asked they not be identified. “Everyone will need to operate under the same construct.”

Such decisions could include whether the Capitol wood restrict public tours.

“At what point do they begin to limit social contact? Do they limit contractors? Visitors? What is the threshold?” asked the source.

That said, there is concern on Capitol Hill about people interpreting decisions as “alarmist.”

“We need to be prepared for any eventuality.”

— Source

That’s because the rest of the planet will respond to what Congress does if there’s a problem on Capitol Hill.

“We need to be prepared for any eventuality,” said one source.

Fox is told that health officials warned key Congressional figures that “this thing is going to spread” and that “there are going to be some casualties.”

The Speaker’s Office says the “Big 4” Congressional leaders heard from House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, Architect of the Capitol Brett Blanton, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund and other officials during the Wednesday meeting.

“There have been no discussions of shutting down public galleries or limiting tours,” said a Pelosi spokesman. “The Congress remains open for the people’s business.”

But Fox has reported since Monday there have indeed been off-the-book discussions by Congressional officials about extreme contingencies – such limiting official visitors – should Congress need to take drastic measures. The House shuttered the public galleries for a month in the fall of 1918 due to the Spanish flu. The House barely did any business then because so many members fell ill.

Breeze through the Capitol over the past few days and you’ll detect an uptick in visitors. It’s now March, not February. School groups are starting to flood the Capitol. It happens every year.

“We are a place where many people come, especially in the spring,” said Pelosi about the seasonal increase in tourists at the Capitol. “Testing everybody who comes into the building? That’s not realistic.”

Pelosi says there are preparations for staff to telework, if, in a worst-case scenario, they need to limit the Capitol to only essential personnel.

The House overwhelmingly approved an $8.3 billion coronavirus spending bill Wednesday. As the House voted, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) sat near the rear of the chamber, decked out in a gas mask. House rules prohibit such get-ups in the House chamber. House security officials whisked Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) off the floor after he wore a hoodie under his suit to bring attention to the shooting of Trayvon Martin eight years ago. But nothing happened to Gaetz. The Florida Republican said he donned the gas mask because lawmakers are “human Petri dishes.”

He’s not wrong.

Handshakes and politics go together like peanut butter and jelly. Lawmakers press the flesh with constituents at a Kiwanis breakfast. There are handshakes in committee conference rooms after lawmakers hammer out a deal on legislation. Etched into the wall of the Capitol Rotunda is an historic handshake which pre-dates the founding of the republic is Above the doorway leading to the Senate wing of the Capitol is a sandstone relief of William Penn. Penn is depicted shaking hands with Native Americans after forging a treaty.

So with coronavirus, some lawmakers are eschewing handshakes. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) says she learned from faith leaders in her district to cover her heart with her palm when she sees people, rather than extending a hand. The Congresswoman says politics is a contact sport.

“There’s a higher risk due to the nature of the work. Our job is to be in our communities and to be with people. So that means shaking a lot of hands. It means the classic politician kissing of babies and all of that. I think as members, we have to take extra precautions to make sure that we aren’t being unwitting vectors of the disease,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) says there’s “muscle memory” when it comes to shaking hands in politics.

“As a young kid, my father said look the person in the eye and grip their hand with a firm handshake. It’s just what we do. But I think we’re all going to have to back away from that for a while. It’s a very retail politics type of thing,” said Walden.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) says she’s trying to recalibrate how she interacts with the public.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to do because I’m a hugger. I’m a handshake,” said Dingell.

The Congresswoman noted she probably hugged 500 people at a recent event in her district.

“One of the Detroit papers thought of me as a ‘Typhoid Mary,’” said the Michigan Democrat.

So, lawmakers are employing new greeting methods. Walden uses the elbow bump. Dingell taps toes with people.

Signs are starting to appear in Congressional offices, characterizing workplaces as “contact free.” The office of Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) in the Cannon House Office Building features one such sign. A few doors down, visitors to the office of Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) receive a similar greeting. “Contact free” means no handshaking. Just “conversation.”

“When we finish the meeting, we all we have sanitary wipes and disinfectants and we clean the tables and the chairs and the doorknobs. We encourage everybody on staff to wash their hands after after any contact,” said Thompson. “There’s a risk everywhere. Now we just need to be conscious of that fact. We need to take precautionary steps. And that’s what we’re trying to promote.”

Pelosi met with reporters for her weekly press briefing Thursday afternoon. The Speaker discussed coronavirus, the census, stalled efforts to renew controversial surveillance programs and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Reporters asked about schisms in the party between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The Speaker insisted Democrats will “come together” and “madly embrace whoever the nominee of the party is.”

But after a moment of hesitation, Pelosi corrected herself.

“We’re not embracing anybody,” said the Speaker with a laugh. “We will madly elbow bump them.”

Chad Pergram currently serves as a congressional correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in September 2007 and is based out of Washington, D.C.

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