Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t let senators work from home and will require all votes to be held in person in the chamber floor despite the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the Hill reported on Tuesday.
McConnell told reporters that it was possible to comply with social distancing guidelines advised by federal health officials—like avoiding all gatherings of 10 or more people—without allowing voting away from Senate chambers or attending hearings via video chat, as some Democrats requested.
“We’ll not be doing that,” McConnell said. “There are a number of different ways to avoid getting too many people together.”
He added, “We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing Senate rules.” McConnell said changes could include lengthening how long it takes to vote and allowing senators to come up only individually or in pairs, according to the Hill.
As of January 2020, the average age of a U.S. senator was 62.9 years, meaning that the Senate is at elevated risk from the virus. (Vanderbilt University infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner told the New York Times that “All you folks older than 60 and those who have underlying illnesses, you ought to do personal mitigation starting now.”) In an effort to encourage social distancing, businesses across the country have limited operations or switched to work from home, while numerous states and cities are taking action to shutter businesses where large numbers of people gather like gyms, movie theaters, bars, and schools.
“You have to take seriously the prospect of if this goes on longer and becomes worse, that we need to be able to keep working as a Senate on a possible package, without all of us being here,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons told CNN.
“Here we are telling everyone across America to abide by the CDC guidelines and we are doing the exact opposite, and for no reason,” another Democratic senator, who was unnamed by CNN, told the network. “With a little creativity, we can address the coronavirus, and model good behavior... Part of the advantage of the floor under normal circumstances is it enables dialogue, but it is an epidemiological labyrinth and there is no unnecessary conversation on the floor. Everyone has an iPhone. And we should just operate accordingly.”
According to a Covid Tracking Project, as of Tuesday evening over 5,900 people had tested positive for coronavirus, while the New York Times reported over 100 confirmed deaths from covid-19, the disease it causes. However, these numbers are likely a dramatic underestimate as massive delays in testing have put the U.S. far behind many other nations in tracking its spread. According to the Times, a recent study estimated there is likely five to ten more coronavirus cases for every confirmed one, while the vast majority of individuals suffer mild symptoms and may spread the infection unaware. Numerous members of Congress or their staffers have been exposed to coronavirus, with several GOP reps who had attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in February saying they would self-quarantine and other legislators closing offices.