Lawmakers close D.C. offices, cancel fundraisers but Congress still voting

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Capitol and congressional office buildings on Capitol Hill are closed to the public for three weeks, but Michigan residents should still be able to contact lawmakers or their staff.

The Capitol complex will temporarily close to the public from 5 p.m. Thursday through at least April 1 as a precautionary measure aimed at preventing further spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Capitol tours are also canceled. 

"We all have to change our behavior. That doesn’t mean we’re not working. We’re just working differently," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat.   

"It’s never been a more important time for people to feel like someone is there to help them."

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The closure follows reports that at least one Senate staffer tested positive for coronavirus, and several House members and staff are self-quarantining after potentially being exposed to the virus at a conservative policy conference last month in Maryland. 

While health experts have warned against large gatherings, Congress hasn't changed its legislative schedule, with the House planning to hold votes Thursday evening. The Senate canceled its upcoming recess and intends to be in session next week. 

With their buildings closed and lawmakers trying to practice "social distancing," they canceled meetings, events, in-person town halls and campaign fundraisers. Several Michigan lawmakers instructed their employees to work from home.

"This situation should not be taken lightly," said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, the senior member of Michigan's House delegation.

Some lawmakers are rerouting phone calls or regularly checking voice and email inboxes in an effort to continue providing constituent services and helping people with federal agencies without interruption.

Upton is requiring all staff members in his offices in Washington, St. Joseph and Kalamazoo to telework starting Thursday. He's also encouraging employers across his district in southwest Michigan to permit employees to telework. 

"Every job is important, but it’s a necessary step as we fight the coronavirus," Upton said. "The fact is that the only way to break this cycle is to limit person-to-person contact."

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, held a telephone town hall Wednesday, and Dingell had one scheduled specifically on the topic of the coronavirus for Thursday evening. She is also exploring the possibility of "virtual" office hours, she said. 

Dingell said she was to speak at dozens of events at home in Michigan over the next 10 days that have been canceled.

She also canceled a fundraiser with the Detroit Red Wings that had been planned for Thursday night and has dropped her practice to hug in greeting. Instead, she does elbow taps.  

“I love to hug. I love people. So this is a major psychological adjustment for me," Dingell said. "But I absolutely know that we have to listen to Dr. Tony Fauci and the other experts and that we have the responsibility to help mitigate the impact." 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, sent her staff and interns a memo Tuesday to revise her offices' operations plan, instructing Washington employees to work from home starting Friday and giving Michigan-based staff the option to telework. 

"I will continue to fulfill my responsibility to vote. However, until further notice, this guidance will stand even when I am in the Capitol," Slotkin wrote.

"Exceptions are only authorized with my permission. We will continue to expect the dedicated, passionate work you have always delivered — but for the time being, you’ll do that work from home." 

Her offices also implemented a “no handshake policy” to minimize contact.

Slotkin had planned to travel to New York for a Cornell University Institute of Politics event and some campaign-related meetings during next week's recess. 

Instead, she will return to the district to hold a telephone town hall for constituents to answer their questions about COVID-19 and meet with local leaders, campaign spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said.

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, has instructed his employees to work remotely to "proactively protect constituents and staff."

"My team and I will be working remotely and will continue to serve the people of MI-10 as promptly as possible during this time," Mitchell said in a statement. "I will continue to participate in legislative business in the House.”

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said his Washington staff is working from home until further notice, and staff in his Flint district office will have the option to tele-work.

“My offices will continue to provide uninterrupted service to constituents as the country deals with the coronavirus," Kildee said.

Others offices said they planned no changes to office operations at the moment. 

"We have made all of the necessary preparations for all staff to be able to work remotely in the event that needs to happen," said James Hogge, spokesman for Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow and her staff are limiting travel and restricting their participation in large group meetings and events. Non-essential staff in Washington are working remotely, though constituents may continue to reach her office by phone and online.

Sen. Gary Peters' office said his offices are open during regular business hours, though they're monitoring the situation and evaluating their status daily.

Congress last week passed a roughly $8 billion supplemental spending package of which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is receiving $14.5 million to help with its response to the coronavirus outbreak.

House Democrats planned to vote Thursday on a package of economic relief for people affected by the outbreak.