- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2020

When part of your job is described as “pressing the flesh,” it’s no surprise that coronavirus fears have struck hard among politicians on Capitol Hill.

Absences mounted Monday as lawmakers announced they’d come in contact with people who have since tested positive for exposure to the deadly virus, and said they would self-quarantine.

At least five Republican lawmakers who were at the Conservative Political Action Conference two weeks ago said they had met there a person who has since tested positive. While each of the five men said he felt fine and had no symptoms after a contact that already was more than a week old, all imposed a self-quarantine for the remainder of the recommended 14-day period.

One Democrat, Rep. Julia Brownley of California, also said she came in contact with an infected person in Washington last week. She shuttered her D.C. office and said she and her Washington staff are doing a self-imposed quarantine, while working remotely.

House Democrats will hold a meeting Tuesday to discuss steps forward — with Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying the COVID-19 virus is the perfect chance to pass bills guaranteeing paid sick leave, free coronavirus testing and government payments for treatment.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are eyeing “targeted tax relief” for the economy’s affected sectors.

For now, though, lawmakers are grappling with questions over who touched whom and what risks they run.

The Republicans who attended CPAC and announced they are now in quarantine are Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Reps. Doug Collins of Georgia, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, said he too was at CPAC and may have been exposed, but a “top CDC physician” called him and they talked it through and decided he was fine.

“He said he would return if he were me and advised that my staff and I should just be careful to observe proper hygiene protocols,” the congressman tweeted.

The White House is also facing questions after Mr. Collins was with President Trump last week at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefing in Atlanta, while Mr. Gaetz was aboard Air Force One on Monday. Mr. Meadows is set to become Mr. Trump’s next chief of staff.

Mr. Trump ignored a question shouted to him by a reporter Monday about whether he’d been tested for COVID-19. Vice President Mike Pence said he has not been tested himself.

There’s good reason for the questions to politicians, for whom handshakes happen perhaps hundreds of times a day, and who attend large meetings as a matter of course. And with the presidential campaign in full swing, rallies drawing thousands of people could become sites of transmission.

“The presidential candidates are going to have to make decisions about how best to proceed,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters.

Florida’s House of Representatives suspended its session Monday afternoon after several members realized they too had come in contact with an infected person at CPAC. House Speaker Jose Oliva ordered that the chamber be sanitized, and said lawmakers were trying to “set an example in the ongoing fight against COVID-19.”

In Washington, lawmakers were left to make decisions for themselves.

Mr. Cruz, for example, is keeping his office open, as is Mr. Gohmert. However, Ms. Brownley, Mr. Gosar and Mr. Gaetz shut theirs down.

In her statement Ms. Brownley acknowledged “the significant number of constituents and other individuals that my staff and I normally have contact with each day when Congress is in session.”

“Out of an abundance of absolute caution, my D.C. staff and I are self-monitoring and maintaining social distancing practices,” she said. “Neither I, nor my staff, are experiencing any symptoms at this time.”

Mr. Gaetz said he did get tested and is expecting results “soon.”

Mr. Cruz, though, said he was advised testing isn’t effective before the symptoms appear, and his interaction with the person at CPAC was too brief to put him in a high-risk category.

“The medical authorities explicitly advised me that, given the above criteria, the people who have interacted with me in the 10 days since CPAC should not be concerned about potential transmission,” he said.

“Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, and because of how frequently I interact with my constituents as a part of my job and to give everyone peace of mind, I have decided to remain at my home in Texas this week, until a full 14 days have passed since the CPAC interaction,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, thanked Mr. Cruz for staying away. “We will miss him around the Capitol, but I thank him for taking the initiative,” he said.

House leaders also plan to keep going with business despite the growing fears and absences.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Congress has to be in session and passing bills to deal with the virus, rather than close up shop. “We need to be here,” he said.

“We don’t have advice that tells us we ought to shut down, to not have sessions,” he said. “But we are very concerned.”

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