US Capitol Closed to Visitors Over Coronavirus Outbreak

March 12, 2020 Updated: March 12, 2020
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Tourists won’t be allowed into the U.S. Capitol through the end of the month because of the new coronavirus.

Sergeants-at-arms for the Senate and House of Representatives made the announcement on Thursday morning.

Only members of Congress, staff, credentialed press, and official business visitors will be exempt from the suspension, Paul Irving and Michael Stenger said in a statement.

The suspension of public tours and nonofficial access to the Capitol complex starts at 5 p.m. on March 12 and will last until April 1.

“We’re taking this temporary action out of concern for the health and safety of congressional employees as well as the public,” they wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced the ban on the Senate floor in Washington to fellow senators.

“I fully support the decision of these nonpartisan officers,” McConnell said.

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The almost empty Capitol Visitors Center at 11 a.m. in Washington on March 12, 2020. (Jan Jekielek/The Epoch Times)

“I know the entire Congress will look forward to welcoming all Americans back to visit their beautiful capitol as soon as possible. In the meantime, we continue to encourage everyone to follow the facts, listen to the experts, and take smart and calm precautions as appropriate,” he added, referring Americans to the government’s coronavirus website.

Lawmakers were mulling whether to close the complex earlier in the week. Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), 53, and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), 42, said Wednesday that they supported closing the Capitol to visitors.

“We should take this step. Not doing so is putting health and safety of these tourists at risk,” Cheney said in a statement on Twitter.

The decision to suspend access to the Capitol came one day after The District of Columbia Department of Health recommended non-essential mass gatherings, including conferences and conventions, be canceled through March 31. The department said mass gatherings are events where 1,000 or more people congregate in a specific location.

“We also recommend that any social, cultural, or entertainment events where large crowds are anticipated be reconsidered by the organizer,” the department said in a statement.

The Capitol complex sees “many times” the number the department named on a typical day, McConnell said.

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A woman wears a face mask as she walks with other commuters to Union Station in Washington on March 11, 2020. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

The virus has quickly spread in some areas and Washington officials have confirmed a number of cases, with other people asked to isolate themselves over possible exposure to patients.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) went into isolation in their homes in other states, as well as Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) who was recently named President Donald Trump’s next chief of staff, and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), because of exposure to a man who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last month before testing positive for COVID-19, the disease the virus causes.

The lawmakers said their Washington offices were temporarily closed over the possible exposure.

No members of Congress have tested positive for COVID-19.

The first known case of the virus on Capitol Hill was a staff member of Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). The staffer works out of Cantwell’s Washington office and has been in isolation since the person started displaying symptoms, according to a statement published on March 11.

“On the advice of the attending physician, the senator has closed her Washington, D.C. office this week for deep cleaning and staff will be teleworking,” the statement said.

“The individual who tested positive for COVID-19 has had no known contact with the senator or other members of Congress,” it added.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber