Following Senate COVID cases, Pa. Capitol tours suspended, top leader says

The state Capitol rotunda. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Tours of Pennsylvania’s Capitol complex are currently suspended while guides and security guards quarantine due to potential COVID-19 exposure, emails from a top Republican lawmaker show.  

The announcement from Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, came the same day that he alerted Senators of a new COVID-19 case in the Senate Security office – the fourth diagnosis in the chamber in the past eight days, and the second on the security squad.

The other two cases, announced last week, were in the Senate Secretary’s office.

Scarnati told lawmakers in an email Tuesday that “several individuals” in the Senate Security Office and Capitol Tour Guides Office had been potentially exposed to the disease and “many” are now quarantining at home.

He said Senate leaders decided to suspend Capitol tours “out of an abundance of caution” after consulting with the House of Representatives, which jointly manages the tour program.

A spokeswoman for Scarnati declined to say how many employees were quarantined Wednesday, citing employee confidentiality concerns. 

“Our top priority is the health and safety of Senate members and employees, which is why we have worked to put in place strong policies regarding COVID-19,” spokeswoman Kate Flessner told the Capital-Star in an email. “However, I cannot provide further details regarding these personnel matters.”

Tour guides typically offer guided tours of the Capitol building seven days a week, including days when the state Legislature is in session. 

A state Capitol website shows that tours are not being offered until Thursday, Sept. 24.

Legislative leaders previously cancelled Capitol tours in March, when the Capitol complex closed to all but essential personnel, and lawmakers and their staff largely began working from home. The building reopened to the public on June 22. 

Scarnati said the potential exposure among employees will not affect the Senate’s plans to return to Harrisburg for session days on Sept. 21. The chamber is expected to take up legislation to help counties administer mail-in voting ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.  

He reminded senators Tuesday that Senate offices are cleaned after each use, and that the chamber floor is regularly sanitized.

The email Scarnati wrote Tuesday was sent to a listserv of Democratic senators, as well as the top Human Resource officer in Scarnati’s office and the chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. 

Spokespeople for top Republican and Democratic lawmakers told the Capital-Star last week that it’s the responsibility of caucus administrators to alert lawmakers and their staff of new COVID-19 cases in their workplace. But it’s unclear whether security guards, mailroom employees, and other institutional staff are notified at the same time. 

Asked about the protocol for notifying those employees of new COVID-19 cases in the Senate, Flessner referred to the chamber’s COVID-19 exposure policy, which states that “any person who may have had direct contact with an employee with COVID-19 is notified by a member of the Response Team for the purpose of taking appropriate actions.”