During debate on the US$2-trillion novel coronavirus economic rescue package Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives followed a painstaking process to avoid spreading the infection that the legislation was designed to fight.
Members were sequestered in their offices, called into the chamber only shortly before they were scheduled to speak, then sent back once they had finished. When it came time to vote, some legislators stood in the public galleries overlooking the room – rather than in their usual spots on the floor – to keep six feet of distance between them.
As the U.S. becomes the pandemic’s new epicentre, passing 100,000 confirmed cases and 1,500 deaths Friday, social-distancing measures meant to slow the spread have reached firmly into the country’s capital.
From Congress to the White House, they are redefining how politics are done in a place that thrives on deal-making in claustrophobic back rooms. And they have rendered ghostly quiet the city’s broad avenues, which would normally be packed with civil servants and tourists on the first warm days of spring.
Some politicians argued that the necessary precautions have hampered work on the mammoth legislative response the crisis demands.
“There are so many members that are either currently sick, that are immunocompromised, that are in a vulnerable community. Just for pure health and safety reasons, we want to avoid having 435 people all travelling in and out constantly,” New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who objected to the coronavirus bill’s corporate-bailout provisions, said in an interview. “That of course has impacts on legislation when legislators aren’t able to come back.”
The District of Columbia itself had 267 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Friday. More than 30 legislators have quarantined themselves over concerns that they might have contracted the virus, and three have so far tested positive.
One Washington denizen who seemingly hasn’t felt hindered by the pandemic is Donald Trump. The President’s daily briefings have become a staple of the crisis, attracting live audiences of up to 12 million – on par with top-rated sporting events and scripted series.
Mr. Trump has used the rapt attention of a nation stuck at home to expound on unproven treatments for the virus, berate reporters for questioning his handling of the crisis and even muse about calling in the military to stop shipments of Chinese steel supposedly being illicitly smuggled through Canada.
“In Canada … we do have troops along the border,” he declared to the bewilderment of the foreign press corps this week. “We’ve taken in billions and billions of dollars in tariffs on steel and much of it comes in from China, but they can come through the Canadian border, too. So we’re always watching for that.”
Access has become increasingly restricted in the cramped confines of the West Wing, where in normal times journalists would cram into the briefing room and back up down a narrow nearby hallway. At first, the number of reporters in briefings was cut in half to allow them to spread out. Now, it’s been reduced to about 20.
The steadily tightening rules at the White House have mirrored the slow ramping up of measures in the city.
First, restaurants and bars were closed – and not without a fight. The Hill Restaurant Group declared on Facebook that it would defy City Hall’s orders and keep operating several local bars as usual. “It is not our burden to bear,” the company said, drawing a swift rebuke from the city.
Museums and schools shut, too, and tourist traffic dropped off. But this didn’t stop street life from continuing as normal during the first week of the pandemic. Droves of people congregated on the National Mall to play Frisbee and crowded around blossoming cherry trees to take selfies.
It was only this week that Mayor Muriel Bowser decided to shut down nearly all businesses. “Stay at home except for essential trips,” she warned residents at a press conference. Police now patrol the streets, under orders to hustle along anyone found gathering in groups.
The mood on the Mall was subdued Friday afternoon, with mostly solitary runners and cyclists enjoying the 20C sunshine. A line of police cruisers blocked access to the Tidal Basin, the city’s largest concentration of cherry trees.
Steve Teague, 51, donned a surgical mask and latex gloves to go for a bike ride with his friend, James Woods, 38. The pair are a restaurateur and bartender, respectively, and had been stuck at home with little to do for the past two weeks.
“It’s definitely necessary, especially in a dense place like DC,” Mr. Teague said of the shutdown, as he stood six feet away from Mr. Woods near the Washington Monument. “We figured the monuments would be pretty empty, which they are. People are spread out.”
The Capitol was similarly quiet, even at the height of debate. With tourists and most staffers barred from the building, the central rotunda was completely empty at midday Friday. Inside the chamber, some members used hand wipes to clean the lectern and microphone before their speeches. Speaker Nancy Pelosi dabbed at her nose with a wadded-up tissue.
One lawmaker, Michigan’s Hayley Stevens, wore pink surgical gloves. Despite the logistical difficulties, she said, the business of in-person governing had to continue – not least because Congress has no provision for members to vote on legislation remotely. She herself drove overnight from her Detroit-area home with her boyfriend and two dogs to be present for the debate.
“We are a deliberative body,” she told The Globe and Mail in a Capitol hallway. “My goodness, the work of democracy at this moment has never been more important.”
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