On Capitol Hill, Pa. lawmakers brace for coronavirus impact: ‘It’s going to change life in America’

The U.S. Capitol at night (Image via Flickr Commons)

WASHINGTON — If we get COVID-19, how long should we expect to be sick? Should we worry about fruit and vegetables carrying the virus? Do older people need to wear masks outside? 

Those were among the questions asked of Rep. Mike Doyle, D-18th District, who held a telephone town hall on the crisis with his constituents on Tuesday evening. 

Doyle, like the rest of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, is scrambling to respond to mounting public concern about the crisis as COVID-19 continues to spread in the state. Meanwhile, lawmakers are considering legislation that could potentially spend hundreds of billions of dollars to stimulate the economy. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they’re transcending the partisan politics that have gripped Washington in recent years in an effort to curb the impact of the pandemic. And there’s a shared sense among some state lawmakers that COVID-19 could fundamentally alter everything from political discourse to the U.S. healthcare system. 

“It’s going to change life in America for a while,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told the Capital-Star in an interview. “The things that we do in the next couple of weeks and months might change America irrevocably.” 

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 133 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Health. Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday ordered all nonessential businesses in the state to shut down for two weeks. The state’s top health official on Wednesday said people should consider postponing surgeries if possible to prepare for an expected surge in the state’s coronavirus cases. 

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month announced that Pennsylvania would receive $17 million for COVID-19 response efforts. And more federal cash is likely to come. 

On Wednesday, two members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, of Florida, and Ben McAdams, of Utah, announced they’d tested positive, Roll Call, a publication that covers Congress, reported. U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat from Pennsylvania’s 8th District, near Scranton, announced he’d self-quarantined after coming into contact with someone who’d tested positive for COVID-19.

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday also passed legislation to ensure paid leave for workers who get sick or who are caring for family members. Lawmakers are now debating another sweeping stimulus package that could cost up to $1 trillion. 

President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he’s invoking a law known as the Defense Production Act to force U.S. businesses to produce necessary health care supplies. And the administration said it would suspend foreclosures and evictions through April. 

The administration continues to come under fire from its critics, however, who argue that by downplaying the virus early on, Trump and his allies hamstrung early efforts to contain the virus.

“I heard the president indicating doubt or raising questions about the gravity of it. He’s changed, but he’s a little late. But better late than never I guess,” Casey said this week. 

Pennsylvania’s House Republicans are lauding the president’s response thus far. 

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“I think the action he’s taken will prevent some folks from coming in contact with this,” U.S. Rep. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson, R-15th District, the longest-serving GOP member of Pennsylvania’s delegation said. 

U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, praised Trump’s restrictions on international travel and credited him with saving lives by taking “some bold and unprecedented steps” early on. 

U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-9th District, said the federal response — particularly over the last few weeks — “has been very good.”

He had some concerns about the bill with paid leave provisions that passed the House over the weekend. “I was concerned that maybe we were going overboard,” he said, but he came around and voted for it, calling it a smart bill. 

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, held a tele-town hall with constituents on how the virus is affecting senior citizens. He similarly praised the administration’s response.

“Our federal, state and local officials are working to confront COVID-19 and everyone has a role to play,” Perry said.

Social distancing

With the U.S. House in recess this week, Pennsylvania lawmakers are back in their districts and taking varied approaches to social distancing as they hold telephone town halls and field near-constant phone calls about the pandemic. 

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, was working from home and her two adult children were both with her, she told the Capital-Star this week. “We’re trying not to get on each other’s nerves,” she said. Her ex-husband was flying back from Ireland earlier this week, and planned to self-quarantine. “The kids are actually delivering a care package down to him shortly,” Wild said on Tuesday. 

“It’s nonstop phone,” said U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, who was working from home early this week. Her offices shut down at the end of last week and everyone was working remotely. “We’re hoping we’re going to be able to fill the gap and serve constituents and answer questions as we can,” she added. “There’s so many questions we can’t answer.” 

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District, said her staff is all working remotely from Pennsylvania and Washington. She did an interview at a largely-empty television studio this week, which she called “otherworldly,” given that staff who would normally be there to assist were absent. It’s important for her to get out as much as she can to show that she’s present and the government is still working, she said. 

Houlahan celebrated St. Patrick’s Day remotely this week with her family in Texas and California. “We had like this huge joint FaceTime to sing an Irish song and raise a glass,” she said. 

‘A strange opportunity’ 

Pennsylvania’s lawmakers stressed that they don’t want their constituents to panic, but they’ve got plenty of concerns about the short-term and long-term impacts of the virus. 

“I’m being told by people in the medical field that we need to be acting more aggressively and more quickly,” Wild said, adding that people seem to be easing into quarantine. “I think we’re going to see escalating response time, as we have over the last few days.” 

Dean keeps thinking about “all the small businesses that are just going to be rocked or shuttered,” she said. “There’s a little Vietnamese restaurant in my district. It’s a beautiful story of immigration and hard work and building community. I worry for them.” 

And Rep. U.S. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District, whose district includes most of Philadelphia,  said he’s concerned about the implementation of federal response efforts. Trump declared a national emergency last Friday, but Evans is concerned that people who receive federal food assistance benefits (known as SNAP), haven’t been allowed to use their benefits cards to have their groceries delivered. 

“If the president says it is an emergency and he signed that, what does that mean?” Evans said. “You’ve got to be able to implement.” 

But while Pennsylvania’s federal lawmakers say they’re prepared for lengthy policy debates during and after the public health crisis, many are optimistic about the bipartisan cooperation they’ve witnessed so far, even during a presidential election year and after a heated impeachment battle. 

Sometimes it takes an incident at the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or coronavirus “for politics to be set aside and for people to be focused with one common mission of defeating this virus,” Thompson said. 

Houlahan said she’s “heartened that our government seems to be trying their best to act out of character and work bipartisanly … because there’s no time for this nonsense.” 

And Dean called the crisis “a strange opportunity for us to refocus.” In a pandemic, she said, “we can remember how interconnected we really are.” 

Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed to this story.