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U.S. Capitol closed to the public as coronavirus hits Congress

by Reuters
Thursday, 12 March 2020 18:47 GMT

(Adds Senate recess postponed, exposure to Brazilian)

By Patricia Zengerle and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON, March 12 (Reuters) - Officials ordered the U.S. Capitol complex closed to much of the public starting on Thursday, one day after a staffer for a senator from Washington state tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Limited access to the Capitol and office buildings was to begin at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) and last until April 1, the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms said. The Capitol Visitor Center will be closed and public tours suspended.

Lawmakers, staff, credentialed journalists and visitors with official business would still be allowed entry.

Congress had been scheduled to leave Washington for a week starting on Friday. But it was unclear when the break would start as Republicans and Democrats negotiated over legislation to provide economic relief as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases continued to grow.

Leaders of the Democratic-led House of Representatives agreed on a bill, but Republicans balked at provisions such as expanding paid sick leave. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate's recess would be postponed so lawmakers could work on the legislation.

Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell said on Wednesday she would shutter her office in the U.S. capital after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Her home state, Washington, is among those hit hardest by the pandemic.

Several other lawmakers also said they would be closing offices as a precautionary measure.

Senator Bill Cassidy, a doctor, whose staff will be teleworking, expressed concern that youthful aides could be coronavirus carriers and not show symptoms, potentially spreading the disease to older visitors - who are at greater risk - if his office remained open.

"I look at the demographics of who is working there, and who is visiting ... and I don't think the twain should meet," Cassidy said on a conference call with journalists.

A few lawmakers, including Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Representative Don Beyer, have self-quarantined after coming in contact with someone who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

Republican Senator Rick Scott announced on Thursday that he was self-quarantining after a meeting in Miami on Monday with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. A member of Bolsonaro's staff has tested positive and was in the same room as Scott.

U.S. President Donald Trump was photographed standing beside the staff member. The White House said it was monitoring the situation closely and would update when it had more information, citing health guidelines against testing patients without symptoms. (Reporting by Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Steve Holland; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Tom Brown)

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