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Lawmakers brace for potential coronavirus cases on Capitol Hill

March 5, 2020, 9:02 PM UTC

Members of Congress are bracing for the potential spread of the coronavirus on Capitol Hill, with some acknowledging an outbreak is only a “matter of time” even as they urge their constituents and fellow lawmakers to remain calm.

“I assume that we’re going to have infections on Capitol Hill,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida. “I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that, to be frank.”

“We have visitors coming here from all over the world and all over the country, all of us travel, our staffs travel,” Rubio said. “There’s a lot of close contact, people in and out all the time. It’s just a matter of time before we have a case confirmed on Capitol Hill or we can confirm that someone who’s been on Capitol Hill has it.”

Rubio said his main concern is about the operations and continuity of government, noting that more than half of the Senate needs to be present for a quorum.

Protecting lawmakers from the coronavirus is especially important since many of them are old enough to be at higher risk than the general population. The average age in the Senate is 62.9 years, while the average age in the House is 57.6 years, according to the Congressional Research Service. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will turn 80 this month.

Pelosi told reporters Thursday that there’s currently no plan to change Congress’s schedule due to the outbreak, although member offices and Capitol facilities are reviewing plans for working remotely. The House and Senate have a previously scheduled recess the week of March 16.

‘Stopping the spread’

Pelosi said she doesn’t see a need to change overall operations at the Capitol and said members have been developing “good habits” like hand washing to try to prevent the spread of disease.

“We have simply no idea of how much this may spread,” she told reporters. “Our focus has to be stopping the spread.”

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and close confidant of President Donald Trump, wore a gas mask on the House floor Wednesday to vote for an emergency spending package funding the U.S. response to the virus. He defended himself against criticism for wearing the mask by characterizing lawmakers as “human petri dishes.”

Gaetz told TMZ, “We fly through the dirtiest airports, we touch everyone we meet, so if anyone’s gonna get coronavirus, it’s totally gonna be Congress.”

Gaetz was one of the lawmakers who spoke last week at the annual conference of AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group. The organization said in a Wednesday statement that some people attending from New York were “potentially in contact prior to the conference with an individual who contracted coronavirus.”

According to the statement, no one at the conference has tested positive, but the group urged participants to follow guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The statement is addressed to, among others, “Hill offices.”

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