WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Bill Flores is a popular air traveler these days.
As concern grows about the spreading the new coronavirus, the Bryan Republican boarded his flight from Texas to Washington on Monday armed with Lysol disinfectant wipes. Two colleagues also on the plane, U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Pete Olson of Sugar Land, asked him to loan them some, and Flores was eager to share.
"I'm not going into full social distancing, but trying to be a little more thoughtful about being in large crowds," Flores said of his mindset amid the growing crisis.
All over the U.S. Capitol this week, members are packing wipes and hand sanitizer and then dispensing their disinfectant caches as tokens of friendship to colleagues. Post-impeachment, there is a refreshing bipartisan friendliness in the enthusiasm for sharing.
But at the same time, the extreme extroversion of Congressional rituals is an epidemiological nightmare.
The conundrum facing members is this: Are they endangering themselves and contributing to spreading the contagion with their weekly commuting routine to and from Capitol? Or is it worse to be seen as abandoning ship — the most-oft used metaphor Democrats used on Tuesday — and shutting down the Congress as the economy is in potential free-fall?
"All of us are concerned that we do the right thing, and that we continue to lead. ... We use best practices so at the same time we don't somehow facilitate the spread of this virus," Flores said.
On most Mondays or Tuesdays, members of Congress emerge from every state in America, including all 38 of the states with known coronavirus cases. They board planes and breathe the same ventilated air as their constituents and colleagues on the ride to Washington, D.C., an international city bustling with tourists.
Once at the Capitol, they walk past hundreds — if not thousands — of visitors who are often on tours given by the members' staffs. The members then congregate together in their respective chambers, which have the back-slapping feel of a high school cafeteria as friends and foes mill around inserting their voting cards into the shared electronic slots to cast their votes on legislation.
When not voting, they spend their hours in meetings with constituents and stakeholders, at their party headquarters sharing phones as they call up donors for campaign donations, or attending fundraising parties.
Rarely does a member have a waking moment alone.
One colleague — Republican U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler — said on Monday in a statement that he was potentially exposed to the virus at CPAC, a conservative gathering, last month. He added that a Center for Disease Control physician cleared him "to return to Washington." But for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a quarantine was necessary, after a potential exposure at the same event.
For the most part, members are making a conscious effort to avoid contact with germs. When possible, they push doors open with their elbows. U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat, said he no longer accepts water out of pitchers at hearings — he will only take his in the form of water bottles.
"People talk over the pitchers of water, they have conversations over the pitchers of water," Veasey said.
Members are thinking twice about what kinds of meetings they are willing to take. And along with their staffers, they walk with their hands in their pockets to avoid the impulse to shake hands.
But at the end of the week, they will fan out across the country again. Together they will board their planes and fly back to their districts to rejoin life with their constituents.
And it is not just geography that is problematic. The aura of serving in Congress is no shield from the germs, and beyond the public engagement, this is a particularly endangered group. Nineteen of the 38 Texas members of Congress are over the age of 60, the age at which medical professionals say people are at most risk for serious complications from the virus.
It is also spring break. Just like every March, the Capitol rotunda teemed this week with out-of-state tourists, mostly students. At least one Texas office said that requests for Capitol tours remained strong, but cancellations were slowly rolling in.
Members will work from their districts next week and are scheduled to return to Washington on March 23. But until a two-week Passover and Easter recess in mid-April, members are expected to continue the commuting routine into the spring.
Beyond the Capitol, the political world was shutting down.
National newsrooms directed employees to work from home. Journalists scrubbed plans for Saturday's white-tie Gridiron Dinner, an event traditionally attended by a member or two of the Texas delegation. The same went for political fundraisers, a breakfast and evening ritual for members when Congress is in session. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden scrubbed Tuesday night events on the presidential campaign trail.
Members themselves are beginning to nix off-campus fundraisers. The impact of those choices could be felt in April, when members in tough reelection campaigns turn in less-than-fearsome quarterly campaign finance reports.
As for dealing with the crisis from a policy perspective, the onus of a response falls on the executive branch. Veasey suggested one of the best ways to avoid an escalation was to ensure Congress continued to fund the response.
In a rare move for a president, Trump traveled to the Capitol on Tuesday to meet with senators to address the issue. Accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and economic adviser Larry Kudlow, Trump reportedly urged calm. Trump designated Mnuchin to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Democrats urged for the passage of paid sick leave for some workers, with an aim to keep infected Americans out of the workplace without economic consequences. The Trump administration is reportedly pushing for economic stimulus policies. And some lawmakers are considering whether to push back the April 15 tax deadline.
Pelosi is expected to reveal a larger package of legislation Wednesday afternoon.
As paralyzed as things are in Washington, the virus continues to spread and the stock market continues to violently swing.
Pelosi has made emphatically clear to her Democratic caucus that the House schedule will hold into the near future.
"It worries me as far as the unknown," Veasey said.
"But we've had other viruses and we've been able to get past those ... to manage those. And so I think this is one that will probably end up playing out the same way as the other ones have," he said. "And because of that, I'm not worried."
"We just have to work as rapidly and quickly as we can so we can also figure out how to manage this one."
Sam Manas contributed to this report.