Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times
Public health officials concerned about the new coronavirus have been warning people over 65 to avoid crowds, limit physical contact with others and skip “nonessential travel.”
Yet this week, a group of Americans 65 and older who fly frequently between cities — shaking hands with many strangers as they go — have been meeting in large groups to conduct their work. Between the U.S. House and Senate, there are almost 200 of them.
When a reporter in the Capitol asked Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, 85, what precautions he was taking to protect himself from the disease known as Covid-19, he said none — and extended his arm with confidence: “Wanna shake hands?”
Mr. Inhofe, chairman of the Armed Services committee, is one of five octogenarians in the Senate. In an institution where seniority reigns, it is an understatement to say that older Americans are overrepresented in Congress. Nearly half of the senators are 65 or older. Nearly 150 members of the comparatively younger House of Representatives are above that age.
Government messages to the public have urged people in that age group to take serious precautions to reduce the risk of infection. While the precise fatality rate for coronavirus is still unclear, evidence from around the world shows that older people are at substantially higher risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that older Americans “avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.” Its guidelines also include the following: “Avoid all nonessential travel including plane trips, and especially avoid embarking on cruise ships.”
Cruises aside, such measures are anathema to many members of Congress. They do much of their work — including committee hearings and major votes — in person, and routinely travel between their home districts and the nation’s capital, as well as visit official delegations around the world. Much of that activity has continued for now, even as bottles of hand sanitizer have proliferated around the Capitol and handshaking has been replaced by elbow bumps in meetings.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is 79, told her Democratic colleagues on Tuesday that the House would continue to operate as usual while carefully monitoring the threat posed to lawmakers. “We are the captains of the ship,” she said at a closed-door meeting about responses to the growing health epidemic, according to two people present. “We are the last to leave.”
Other congressional leaders who are old enough to qualify for Medicare include Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, 80; Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, 78; Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, 69.
Dr. Jack Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia University, said he didn’t understand why Congress would ignore the threat.
“There are 535 of these people between the two chambers — you can’t tell me there aren’t any of them that don’t have chronic disease who would be at special risk,” he said. “These people should be excused. They should be sitting at home looking at their computers, listening to the debate and voting, and that would send the right message.”
A handful of Republican legislators who had direct contact with an infected man at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference last week have voluntarily quarantined themselves to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona and Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina are staying away from the Capitol. So are the Democratic representatives Julia Brownley of California and Don Beyer of Virginia, who had contact with infected persons elsewhere.
Although some lawmakers have expressed private alarm that their oldest colleagues are traveling, meeting constituents and congregating on the House floor, they have publicly shown deference. Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and one of the younger members at 46, said every member of Congress knows the job has risks.
“We have a unique set of responsibilities here, so I wouldn’t begin to tell my colleagues what they should and shouldn’t do,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be here to lead and legislate, but that comes with risks.”
The House conducted a series of votes on Monday and Tuesday in which hundreds of members congregated in a closed room, the House chamber. Additional votes are scheduled for later this week.
Nevertheless, some older members of Congress are rethinking their usual routines. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the 79-year-old Vermont Democrat, said he had already canceled travel plans and was preparing his staff to work remotely if need be.
“I’m married to a registered nurse,” he said. “I probably get told 10 times a day what to do, and she’s right.”