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