WASHINGTON — When Vice President Mike Pence reached for a handshake on Thursday, Jan Malcolm, Minnesota’s health commissioner, offered him an elbow bump instead.
But not everyone in proximity to Pence, and to President Trump, has been quite so careful. On Monday, two Republican congressmen announced plans to self-quarantine after making contact with an individual who later tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. One, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, learned of his exposure Friday while riding with Trump on Air Force One. The same day, the other lawmaker, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, was photographed shaking Trump’s hand.
None of the six lawmakers exposed to the coronavirus so far have reported symptoms. But their close brushes with a disease that has already killed 27 Americans highlight that in many ways, the outbreak hasn’t yet disrupted Washington’s handshake-happy culture. While Congress last week eagerly spent $8 billion to fund prevention efforts, it’s unclear whether the capital region is prepared to embrace public health officials’ recommendation to ditch the grip-and-grin — and, in all likelihood, to begin cancelling networking events, happy hours, and campaign rallies that define political life here.
“During this time, we need to rethink personal space, and how we interact and touch each other,” said Dina Borzekowski, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “I think we’re about to turn a corner where we may not be hanging out with our friends in close proximity.”
Viewed through a pandemic-preparedness lens, Washington’s culture of constant conferences and political rallies seems to provide an eager breeding ground for a virus. And some Capitol offices have taken precautionary measures that could make political meetings awkward.
“Due to heightened health concerns, we respectfully ask that you refrain from shaking hands with staff or the Member of Congress,” reads a sign posted on the Capitol Hill office door of Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.). Another sign, on the door of Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), sports a yellow hazard sign and warns against handshakes or hugs.
Before a Tuesday hearing, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was photographed offering the increasingly standard elbow-bump to Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lobbyists and congressional aides told STAT that while they hadn’t formally enacted coronavirus-specific policies, they had worked to shift some in-person meetings to phone calls or canceled visits altogether.
Already, events like the Conservative Political Action Conference have highlighted the dangers of events at which attendees from around the country handshake and high-five.
All five of the Republican lawmakers to announce Covid-19 exposures attended the conference, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who Trump announced Friday as his incoming chief of staff. Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), separately, also announced a voluntary self-quarantine on Monday after learning she had met with a constituent who later tested positive.
While most lawmakers have decided to self-quarantine as a precaution, others have been far more cavalier. Gaetz, another CPAC attendee, wore a gas mask onto the House floor last week, an apparent attempt at mocking individuals anxious about the emerging crisis. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), after attending the conference and encountering the same individual, announced Monday he would not-self quarantine — on the advice, he said, of a CDC physician. (Later in the day, Gohmert was photographed leading a group of children on a tour of the Capitol.)
The coronavirus has also raised concerns for Trump, 73, and the two candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination: Former Vice President Joe Biden, 77, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78. By virtue of their age, all three politicians are at elevated risk for complications that could result from contracting the coronavirus. Sanders, who suffered a heart attack in October, is especially vulnerable, statistically speaking — individuals with heart disease are seen as particularly high-risk.
On Tuesday, both Biden and Sanders announced they would cancel campaign events in Ohio on the recommendation of public health officials.
Trump, undeterred, has said he will continue shaking hands, recognizing the political pitfalls that come with treating voters as potential disease carriers.
“If you don’t shake hands, they’re not going to like you too much,” he said last week.
Sanders (I-Vt.), who has slammed Trump for his administration’s missteps in responding to the disease outbreak, had previously shrugged off a reporter’s question about what precautionary steps he would take at a press event on Monday, saying merely that running for president “requires a whole lot of work.”
Biden, meanwhile, had posted volunteers at the entrances to his campaign rallies, equipped with bottles of hand sanitizer that attendees are required to use upon entry even before the cancellation of Tuesday’s rally. And despite Trump’s nonchalance, the White House has begun requiring visitors to disclose the foreign countries they’ve recently visited in the previous 30 days, CBS reported on Monday.
The outbreak has resurfaced stories from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which carries cautionary tales about public gatherings. That year, a parade meant to spark enthusiasm for buying war bonds drew 200,000 spectators in Philadelphia despite the epidemic, sickening thousands in the aftermath.
While the coronavirus has forced cancellations of concert tours, festivals, and academic conferences across the country — STAT also cancelled a subscriber event planned for March 10 — many D.C.-centric events have so far gone untouched.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Half Marathon, a popular race scheduled for March 28, will go on as scheduled, organizers said Tuesday.
In a press briefing Monday, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease researcher, stopped short of recommending that candidates cancel their campaign rallies, but suggested it would be prudent to do so in areas with sustained community spread. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and until last week a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the coronavirus could force a campaign-trail reckoning.
“With all of the different capabilities and possibilities for reaching voters,” he said in a television interview, “we should find new ways to do this if it’s the right thing to do — not just for the candidates’ safety, but for that of the voters.”
Those “new ways,” according to Borzekowski, could test the bounds of what’s appropriate in Washington’s high-powered meeting culture.
“I do believe that this is a time we can be creative,” she said. “And I mean everything from jazz hands to people using ‘namaste.’”