Last week, Sen. Cory Gardner walked up to a group of Capitol Hill reporters to share information with them about bills he was sponsoring to counter the coronavirus outbreak. According to people who witnessed the encounter, in order to separate the sheets of paper, the Colorado Republican licked his finger and thumbed the pages before handing them off to reporters to pass around.
Several hours later, he was in self-imposed quarantine.
Earlier this week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) announced that he tested positive for the novel coronavirus, joining two members of the House, and at least four staffers who earlier this month also tested positive.
The increasing number of cases has prompted more than two dozen lawmakers to self-quarantine, while many congressional staffers have begun working from home. And more than 50 members of the House and several senators have called for the legislative bodies to allow remote voting to decrease the likelihood of accidental infection, while others have called for staggered roll call.
As a result, over the past week, many congressional reporters have grappled with a difficult decision: stay home while Congress passes one of the most expensive and impactful bills in American history, or risk exposure to the coronavirus in the halls of the Capitol, which has become the site of multiple COVID-19 infections.
“This is the biggest spending bill in the history of the U.S., and at the same time news orgs are actively considering the risk of sending people,” one congressional reporter told The Daily Beast.
The virus has already seriously impacted daily business and life on the Hill, where lawmakers have rushed to pass emergency funding legislation to assist workers and businesses amid the pandemic’s economic downturn. And the growing pandemic has sparked concern among some Capitol Hill reporters, whose primary job duties include roaming the halls attempting to interact with lawmakers who could be among some of the more vulnerable cases.
“On the one hand, we get paid to be in the thick of it here, and even after a remarkable few years culminating in a presidential impeachment, it’s hard to imagine not being here to cover the drafting of a $2-trillion bill that is going to have a dramatic impact on American life for years to come,” one prominent Hill reporter said.
“On the other hand, there is no health justification for doing this,” the reporter continued. “The job is by definition high-risk for transmission of COVID-19. We bunch up around each other. We touch elevator buttons and door handles and pile into press galleries. It’s awful.”
Congressional reporters privately acknowledged that they and members of Congress were both slow to take the appropriate steps to increase social distancing.
As of last week, some reporters and lawmakers were still conducting “scrums,” where journalists huddle around a legislator in the hallway to toss out questions and get quotes. Lawmakers themselves did not take social distancing seriously, continuing to shake hands or visit the Senate gym and remain in close quarters with one another. As a result, some reporters who interacted with Paul have had to self-isolate.
At the same time many private businesses began to indefinitely shutter or transition to remote working, Capitol Hill continued to host visitor tours until less than two weeks ago. Since then, however, Congress has taken some small steps to encourage reporters to be safe.
Last week, the Senate Press Gallery sent guidance to reporters advising them to wash their hands and give lawmakers ample space in the hallways. The physical gallery, which includes desks for reporters from various outlets to file their stories, has also been sanitized and cleaned repeatedly over the past week, and signs have been placed on chairs advising journalists to maintain social distance.
Several Capitol Hill reporters also told The Daily Beast that they have found lawmakers easier to reach by phone as they are quarantining or hoping to minimize in-person interactions.
Various publications have begun taking steps to protect their congressional scribes as well. Reporters from D.C.-specific publications that cover the minutiae of politics have stopped coming to the Capitol, and outlets with multiple congressional reporters like Politico, USA Today, and the Washington Post have cut down on the number of writers they send to be physically present in Congress.
The remaining Hill reporters have also banded together to buffer their own physical safety as a unit. One congressional reporter told The Daily Beast that some have started an informal pool for Capitol Hill reporters to share with each other the comments they’ve obtained from lawmakers, in order to avoid crowding around other people.
Still, staying away from the central location of their beat has been a shock for many reporters.
Emma Dumain, who covers Congress for McClatchy, has been working from home for the past two weeks out of concern for a spouse with pre-existing respiratory health issues. Dumain said that she appreciates the reporters who have continued to physically travel to the Capitol, but does not regret her decision to stay home.
“I don’t think any of us truly appreciated just how real this would get fast,” Dumain said. “I took it seriously, I wasn’t laughing it off, but I never thought I would be a congressional reporter not covering Congress from Capitol Hill in a moment like this. It’s sad.”