At least one official with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) office was on a call last week with the Capitol’s attending physician during which that physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, said Washington, D.C. had not yet cleared coronavirus-related benchmarks needed to safely reopen.
According to two sources familiar with the call, McConnell’s chief of staff, Sharon Soderstrom, stressed to individuals on the call that they should take seriously the likelihood that the Majority Leader would reconvene the Senate on May 4 even amid the pandemic. A third source who was informed of the call’s exchanges confirmed that account.
Despite Monahan’s warnings, McConnell did just that, telling lawmakers this week that they would be called back next Monday.
McConnell has defended his position by noting that the government is asking and demanding a host of essential workers to remain on the job during the spread of coronavirus and, therefore, that federal lawmakers should be prepared to do the same. But his decision to call back the Senate has been met with criticism by some of its own members, who say it defies basic public safety guidelines to make lawmakers (many elderly) and their staffs—not to mention the hundreds of workers needed to keep the Capitol and Senate offices running—cram into the buildings when COVID-19 cases in Washington, D.C. are just about peaking.
Those warnings took on additional urgency this Thursday when Monahan held a separate call with top GOP officials during which he relayed that his office lacked the capacity to test all 100 senators for coronavirus and that the tests they did possess could take two or more days to process.
It is unclear if the state of testing was discussed on Monahan’s call the week prior. A request for comment to his office was not returned. One source also said that Monahan made no actual recommendation as to whether the Senate should or should not reconvene as his job is not to advise on those matters but to give lawmakers “the lay of the land.”
“He gave a nearly 20 minute update on the situation in D.C.,” said the source. “He did outline that they didn’t expect the benchmarks to be met by May 4.”
According to the source, the call featured at least one aide to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office, the Senate parliamentarian, the Architect of the Capitol, the Senate’s Sergeant at Arms, the Secretary of the Senate, top Republican and Democratic floor staff, and the Rules Committee Chair and ranking members as well as their staffs.
Schumer’s office declined to comment. David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, said, “I do not have any readouts or guidance to provide from any recent calls at the member or staff level.”
Washington, D.C. authorities have extended the city’s stay-at-home order through May 15 as the coronavirus’ spread has yet to abate sufficiently to reasonably relax social distancing restrictions. On Thursday, the District had its deadliest date yet, while the greater metro region recorded 2,000 new COVID cases. Officials have warned that businesses may not be able to open for another two to three months under the current trajectory.
Earlier in the week, House Democratic leadership reversed course on their own scheduled return to business on May 4, apparently based on similar warnings. After announcing on Monday that the House would reconvene on that day, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Tuesday they would in fact not return, citing guidance from the attending physician and backlash from rank-and-file members.
As the Senate reconvenes next week, some precautions are being taken. According to Politico, staff is being encouraged to telework and Senate offices are being asked to screen staffers who have to come to the Hill. Both lawmakers and aides are also being asked to wear masks at all times.