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'No one wants to be there': Senators and their staff prepare for return to Washington amid coronavirus

There is growing anxiety and concern on Capitol Hill that the Senate is set to return next week in the middle of the pandemic, putting hundreds of people at risk -- from members, to congressional aides and support staff like Capitol police and cafeteria workers.

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Sunlen Serfaty
CNN — There is growing anxiety and concern on Capitol Hill that the Senate is set to return next week in the middle of the pandemic, putting hundreds of people at risk -- from members, to congressional aides and support staff like Capitol police and cafeteria workers.

"It is insane," a Democratic Senate staffer told CNN about the decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, to call back the Senate at a time when Covid-19 cases in DC are still high and health experts have urged workers to stay home.

"No one wants to be there," another Democratic staffer told CNN.

These concerns are privately being shared among some Republican Senate staffers as well, including one who told CNN they don't feel like their health is being respected.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday that he will "scrutinize" McConnell's safety guidelines for returning to session next week, which he said McConnell will release on Friday.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call, the New York Democrat said McConnell never consulted him about returning next week and said he will review the GOP leader's safety plans "very carefully" to make sure all senators and "workers are protected in every way." His comment came in response to a question pointing to a highly diverse workforce in Washington D.C[insert space]-- nearly 50% African American -- many who work at the US Capitol in service jobs.

"We are going to scrutinize Leader McConnell's plan very carefully to see if it does provide the needed protections for the staff and the workers who are here," he said.

Many Democrats are pointing to politics at play -- blasting what they see as an "irresponsible" and "political" decision by Mitch McConnell to call the Senate back.

"I think Democrats would have responded much differently if McConnnell believed everyone needed to be back in the Capitol to work on Covid-19 response, which is an essential duty or critical need," another Democratic Senate staffer told CNN. "The problem is that's not at all what this is."

"Instead of moving forward with hearings and votes to address this crisis, McConnell isn't even hiding the fact that he's just bringing us back into session to ram conservative judges through," another Democratic Senate staffer said.

But there are several Republican senators who have been vocal about the need for lawmakers to return to DC, including GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas who said, "This idea we were going to hunker down and shelter in place for an indefinite period of time, it's just it's just inconsistent with the reality of us needing to do our job."

Senate offices, both Republican and Democratic, that CNN spoke to are quickly readying their own plans for how they will operate next week to keep their staffers as safe as possible.

Many offices plan to operate very thinly, with plans to send only one or two staffers physically along with the member to Capitol Hill -- with the rest of their staffs working remotely from home.

As the Senate is expected to return Monday, which has raised many concerns particularly for vulnerable, older members, Schumer said each Democratic senator will "make his or her decision" on "how they can best serve their states and their country cause we can work online."

Democrats will do "the best we can" to practice good social distancing, Schumer said.

One Senate office said that while they typically operate with 25 people present, they will now only have five people in addition to the senator in the office, and plan to only be there when the Senate is actually in session.

Many offices said they will evaluate staffing needs every day and are taking their own precautions outside of official guidance, such as not taking any meetings with those outside the building.

There are discussions within offices about what bathrooms would be the safest to use -- with one Senate office considering opening up the Senator's personal bathroom, within their personal office, to the few staffers present.

Senate Democrats will be holding their weekly caucus lunch as a conference call instead. McConnell's office would not provide information to CNN about what changes to their operations may be coming next week.

Many offices lamented that they feel they haven't received adequate guidance about how, logistically, the Senate will operate next week safely.

In an email to all Senate offices Thursday, the Sergeant at Arms outlined the operating protocol for next week -- saying that access to the Senate offices and Capitol will remain "limited," though does allow for some scheduled meetings with visitors.

The number and times that doors will be open will be modified and "spacing markers" around entrances will be used to assist with social distancing.

Senate food service will be operating under a modified food service schedule.

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the US Capitol Police, told CNN, "We will be well prepared for the Senate's return next week," saying that they have adapted a progressive staffing posture aimed at preserving employee health and well-being, and "We have issued personal protective equipment to all of our police officers."

Twelve US Capitol Police personnel have tested positive for the virus but nine of them have fully recovered and have returned to work, or are cleared to return to work.

On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein of California -- who is 86 years old -- called for McConnell to change his plan to bring the Senate back, praising the Democratic leaders who run the House for following the guidance of the Attending Physician of Congress, Dr. Brian Monahan, who urged them not to bring lawmakers back next week.

Cornyn said Thursday that he doesn't "begrudge a senator expressing their personal concerns, but that shouldn't mean that the entire Senate ceases to function," when asked about Feinstein's concerns.

"We simply can't be seen doing our job if we're going to be passing trillion dollar bills without even being here and debating," Cornyn said.

McConnell told Fox News in an interview that he thinks the chamber can "conduct our business safely."

"We've got a whole lot of other people showing up for work during the pandemic," McConnell told Fox News. "It's time for the Senate to do that as well. We have many confirmations, for example. The Senate is in the personnel business. The House is not."

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