'It looks even more like a ghost town': What it's like inside the US Senate amid coronavirus.
Posted May 5, 2020 7:08 p.m. EDT
CNN — One in-person lunch, two confirmation hearings, dozens of senators in face masks and no floor votes.
That marked the Senate's first full day back in session at the US Capitol.
The halls, typically buzzing on a Tuesday, were still. The Ohio clock, the scene of post-lunch press conferences, ticked by without a staffer in its vicinity. In order to comply with social distancing guidelines, Republicans dined in a room so large it is typically reserved for high-profile Senate hearings. Democrats held no lunch at all, instead replacing it with a conference call.
"It's a different world," Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, said Tuesday morning donning a white mask and thick gardening gloves. He walked across the lobby of the Hart Office Building, which in a normal spring would be crawling with throngs of tourists and interest groups. It was empty and as he walked away, the echo of his shoes filled the space that was otherwise silent.
"It looks even more like a ghost town," said Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana.
The scene at the Capitol on Tuesday served as a reminder that no one -- not even America's lawmakers -- can escape the grasp coronavirus has on the country. Senators streaming into the Capitol largely sported masks. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is 86 years old and a member of the Senate's Intelligence Committee, put hers on before entering the hearing room. An aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe gently reminded her 85-year-old boss to put his on as they approached dozens of reporters lined up against the wall outside the GOP lunch.
"Walking through this building, it is like you are walking through on a Sunday afternoon, not a Monday or Tuesday afternoon," said Sen. James Lankford, also a Republican from Oklahoma. "When you go to my state, restaurants are open now, stores are open. ... it does feel like you are flying back in time when you come here."
At the Capitol building where metal detectors and law enforcement have sought to stamp out outside threats, the only recourse now against coronavirus is dozens of boxes of Purell on a cart in the Senate basement, hand sanitizing dispensers near the elevators, boxes of masks on tables near the elevators and yellow sticker dots on the floor of a popular stakeout location thanking members of the press in advance for practicing social distancing.
Even the two confirmation hearings -- a basic function of the Senate -- were designed with the virus in mind. The President's nominee to become the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, sat through a confirmation hearing where senators were spaced six feet apart. Few stayed in the room throughout the hearing and wipes were situated strategically every two seats. Later in the day, the President's nominee to lead a board of inspectors generals doing oversight on the stimulus package, Brian Miller, received questions from Democratic senators streaming in remotely. During Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown's questioning, a dog could be heard barking in the background.
Still, not everyone was embracing the new normal.
Braun was not wearing a mask as he talked to reporters Tuesday. Asked about it, Braun said, "I believe I am practicing the social distancing. I wore it coming out of the plane and I will if I am in a tight spot."
He said he believed people are doing a good job on social distancing and maintaining good hygiene
"On the mask part, I think you need to use your own common sense and use it where it makes sense," Braun said.
Still, senators said they were setting into their new normal.
At the Republican lunch, Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota joked he noticed the bread seemed a little harder than usual, but "it felt about the same once we got rolling. People were just as expressive and opinioned as ever."