Social distancing not common on Senate floor, despite McConnell’s claims


(CNN)Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has insisted repeatedly this week that senators have been responsible in following proper health precautions amid the pandemic, wearing masks while they “practice social distancing.”

But the scene on the Senate floor tells a different story.

A CNN review of hours of footage from September 29 through October 1 shows senators often crowding one another — face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder — and carrying on extended conversations in the chamber.

In a striking scene, the three Republican senators who recently tested positive — Mike Lee of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — were surrounded by more than a dozen masked senators packed together as they waited for their turns to vote, just days before all three received their diagnoses.

    Plus, six senators were seen in the chamber for votes not wearing masks at all.

    The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the spread of the disease typically happens during a “prolonged period,” while the US Capitol physician’s office recommends keeping face-to-face interactions to less than 15 minutes when possible. On the floor, senators are typically interacting for less than 15 minutes. But the CDC also says people should stay at least 6 feet, or about two arms’ length, away from people “who are not from your household in both indoor and outdoor spaces” to maintain a social distance.

    The CDC recommends wearing a mask if that’s not possible. But masks — when senators do wear them — don’t offer full protection, which makes distancing critical.

    And on the Senate floor, in the hallways and on elevators, senators of both parties often ignore that distancing suggestion.

    The issue has taken on heightened importance as the virus has spread in the White House and infected the three Senate Republicans. As a result, McConnell abruptly scrapped the Senate’s session and delayed bringing back the chamber back until October 19 as the Senate races to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before Election Day.

    North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, far left, presides over the Senate on September 30, while senators, including those who have since tested positive for coronavirus, huddle close together on the floor. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is at far right.

    A ‘superspreader event’

    Seven senators, including Lee and Tillis, were at the White House last month when President Donald Trump announced Barrett’s nomination, something that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, on Friday called a “superspreader event” that led to a number of infections. Those seven senators all returned to the Capitol last week and participated in votes, hearings and private meetings.

    Many people at the event, including Lee, did not wear masks, and Tillis was seen not wearing one while inside the White House that day. Johnson was not at the event, but he was at the Capitol last week and seated next to Lee at a socially distanced table during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing.

    Many senators have tested negative despite the outbreak at the White House, while many others have not said if they’ll get a Covid-19 test. The Capitol lacks widespread testing for lawmakers even though they are at increased risk because they travel across the country. A broad-scale testing program is something both McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have rejected despite pleas from both parties.

    But Senate Democratic leaders have demanded that senators prove they have negative test results before returning to committee business or to the Senate floor, an idea that McConnell also has rejected. The reason, the Kentucky Republican argues, is that senators have been following CDC recommendations and have modeled good behavior in the Senate.

    Yet that’s not always the case.

    Lack of social distancing

    Last week, there were a number of examples of behavior inconsistent with federal guidelines. Senators are often seen routinely grouped together, rarely practicing social distancing — even in one-on-one conversation. Some were seen without masks, including Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who presided over the chamber for roughly three hours without a face covering.

    Asked to respond, Cramer defended the precautions he’s taking.

    “I’ve always said, I screen several times a week and test when necessary and will let people know if I test positive for Covid,” Cramer told CNN on Friday. “I’ve tested negative as recently as this week, not that it’s anybody’s business.”

    Unlike the House, where Pelosi mandated the wearing of masks this summer, doing so is not required in the Senate.

    Public health experts say wearing masks significantly mitigates the spread of the disease, and virtually all senators of both parties are now seen wearing masks in the public spaces of the Capitol. But wearing masks is not entirely protective, which is why experts urge people to keep at least 6 feet apart, particularly when they’re indoors and in poorly ventilated rooms, like many in the Capitol.

    The attending physician has urged additional steps in the Capitol to make it easier to keep a physical distance, such as staggering lawmakers’ arrival during votes so there are fewer people in close proximity and urging senators to avoid congregating in the chamber and to leave quickly after voting. Those calls worked for a while, but senators soon dispensed with that guidance, and no one enforces the physician’s recommendations.

    “We’ve operated successfully in a Covid environment — the Senate has done that for some time,” McConnell said earlier this week. “In fact, the current members who have a problem got it somewhere else — not here in the Senate.”

    As criticism of the Trump administration’s behavior has grown, McConnell has suggested he has stayed away from the White House for two months as the Senate has been the model of how to behave in the pandemic.

    “We each have to take responsibility for our actions — wear a mask and socially distance,” McConnell said in Kentucky on Friday. “After the Senate comes back, we will demonstrate to the people we are responsible by doing exactly like I said.”

    When asked how CNN’s findings from the footage squared with McConnell’s assessment of social distancing in the Senate, his office declined to comment.

    It’s not just senators who are seen in close quarters in the Capitol. Reporters often are as well, particularly when trying to interview lawmakers in the narrow hallways. Senate aides often scold reporters for getting too close to senators in trying to solicit responses to questions.

    Senators, though, often are the ones who find themselves close to one another.

    Republican senators have lunch three times a week in a large hearing room. While they space out and limit each table to three senators, they remove their masks while they eat and when they speak. Some senators are less diligent than others in putting their masks back on, attendees say.

    Politicians, by their nature, are social animals who spend a lot of their time — especially during long votes on the floor — talking, trying to persuade, convince and win each other over. Bipartisan interaction, something some Americans don’t think still exists, actually thrives there. But most senators have given up the constant backslapping, hugging and handshaking that was a big part of their normal interactions with one another before the pandemic.

    On the floor last week, McConnell, who was wearing a mask, was routinely seen having close-up, one-on-one conversations with senators standing 1 or 2 feet apart, not 6, during floor votes. As leader, it’s hard for him to have confidential conversations on the floor standing that far away — and wearing a mask can make it hard to hear from 6 feet away.

    During votes on September 30, the GOP leader spoke briefly with Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. He also stood very close and had longer conversations with Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, and Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana. Soon after, McConnell led a several-minute discussion with a group of Republican senators: Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Later, he huddled near his desk with his chief of staff, Sharon Soderstrom, and with GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, was wearing a mask and also seen having close conversations on his side of the aisle, including with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan. And Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, at one point gave a brief hug to Sullivan. Other Democrats were seen speaking close together — including Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Manchin also spoke in close proximity to Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.

    When the masks come off

    Despite pressure from public health officials and the full endorsement of McConnell, some senators still don’t wear masks all the time. Most notably, GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky says he’s likely immune because he’s already had coronavirus and therefore doesn’t need to wear a mask — a position that contradicts the recommendations of the CDC. Paul was on and off the floor several times without a face covering last week.

    Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, showed up to two votes last week without a mask. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who usually wears a mask, nevertheless came to the floor for one vote without, as did GOP Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, though he usually wears one.

    On October 1, Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas who is retiring at the end of the year, was seen walking on the Senate floor three separate times during a vote and interacted with floor staff with his face uncovered.

    Three senators on the floor

    On September 30 — four days after the White House event for Barrett — Lee was seen speaking with Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Joni Ernst of Iowa. Johnson also spoke to Barrasso and was seen standing close to other senators as he walked on and off the floor for votes.

    Tillis was on the floor the most. Wearing a mask, he spent about 70 minutes in the chamber, according to the video, around three votes talking close up and face-to-face with numerous senators as he managed a bill that was being voted on.

      Over the afternoon, Tillis had conversations with Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, and Manchin. He spent a great deal of time interacting with Braun, who was at his side for much of that period. Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island joined them at one point too.

      Tillis stopped 85-year-old Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma to show him a piece of paper. Inhofe put his arm around Tillis’ lower back and patted him several times as the conversation ended. Tillis also huddled with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, and the two GOP senators from South Dakota, Mike Rounds and John Thune, who is also the number two Republican in the leadership. The four stood about 2 or 3 feet apart during their conversation.

      Kristin Wilson contributed to this report.