What COVID Protocols Are in Place for the Supreme Court Senate Hearings?

The thought of the novel coronavirus has been hanging in the air

Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court Hearings
Judge Amy Coney Barrett's family and others in attendance at her Senate confirmation hearings on Monday. Photo: Erin Schaff/AP/Shutterstock

The thought of the novel coronavirus — if, everyone hoped, not the virus itself — has been hanging in the air this week as the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

The illness that has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S. this year has, in recent days, also infected three Republican senators.

Nonetheless the committee's Republican majority has moved forward with the hearings, insisting that proper precautions have been taken, even as their Democratic colleagues made no secret about objecting to the entire event — with Vermont's Patrick Leahy arguing it was "plainly unsafe to do," in lieu of daily testing.

Not so, said the committee chair, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“We’ve taken great pains to make sure this committee room is safe,” he assured Fox & Friends on Monday, before about 100 lawmakers, the judge, her family and congressional staff prepared to gather on the Senate floor.

The Senate’s COVID-19 protocols for the four days of hearings include pop-up personal protective equipment stations, sanitary stations and limits on the number of people allowed into the hearing room, one GOP spokesperson tells PEOPLE, though video and photographs from the floor shows other safety protocols being ignored — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's social distancing guidelines.

Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court Hearings
Judge Amy Coney Barrett's husband Jesse Barrett sits with some of their seven children on Monday. LEAH MILLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty
Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court Hearings
Judge Amy Coney Barrett at the first day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. WIN MCNAMEE/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The hearings were cleared by Congress' attending physician, Dr. Brian P. Monahan, and the Senate Judiciary Committee says lawmakers are being advised to follow CDC social distancing recommendations.

But journalists and others tuning into the hearings were quick to note this week that many attendees don't appear to be abiding by some of those guidelines, as video showed some lawmakers talking with one another in close range and some individuals sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.

Both Democratic and Republican senators also took off their masks in order to speak, as did Barrett, which decreased their effectiveness.

Senators have further resisted the implementation of daily coronavirus testing, despite the support of some on the committee, including Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.

(Testing has its drawbacks as a preventative measure, as the recent White House outbreak made plain, given that it may miss some early infections, but experts say it's a key step in a large strategy to track and contain illness.)

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, one of the three GOP senators who tested positive for the coronavirus disease COVID-19 earlier this month, spoke on the floor for several minutes without wearing his mask, according to NPR.

Lee said he could attend the hearing in person because his doctor had cleared him, following his infection and recovery. (None of the infected Republican lawmakers has been seriously ill.)

"I don't know who has been tested, who should be tested, who is a danger, what contact tracing has been done on infected and exposed senators and staff,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said after Lee spoke. “Nothing."

Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court Hearings
Sen. John Cornyn adjusts his mask while attending the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. Win McNamee/Getty
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., listens during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett
Sen. Amy Klobuchar. SUSAN WALSH/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

COVID-19 continues to prove defiant over those who balk at its danger — sickening even President Donald Trump and others in his orbit many of whom were linked either to Trump's debate prep or a White House event on Sept. 26 to formally nominate Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Attendees in both cases largely declined to wear masks and were seen in close physical proximity.

“The positive tests from the President and a staffer further highlight the need for testing on Capitol Hill,” Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican who recovered from COVID-19 earlier this year, tweeted in a call for fellow lawmakers to take safety more seriously.

Republicans in the Senate, however, haven’t masked their determination to cast a vote to approve Barrett to the court this month, virus or not, in what they seen as a crucial goal for their constituencies.

"If we have to go in and vote, I have already told leadership: I'll go in a moon suit," Ron Johnson, another of the three Republican senators who tested positive this month, told 630 KHOW in Denver last week.

Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., questions Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett on the second day of her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Hart Senate Office Building on October 13, 2020 in Washington, DC
Sen. Lindsey Graham. Tom Williams-Pool/Getty
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) listens as Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the second day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on October 13, 2020 in Washington
Sen. John Kennedy. Bonnie Cash-Pool/Getty

Separately, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said last week that the legislature had "become a COVID-19 hotspot."

"We need to take immediate action, guided by the best science, to put in place additional protections to safeguard the health of the Senate complex workers, Senate staff and Senators,” he said. “Senate Republicans must join us here in reality and acknowledge that through their inaction, they are creating a truly dangerous situation.”

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