A few weeks after September 11, 2001, Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain were chatting in the green room of Meet the Press. A partisan fight was brewing over how to investigate the attacks, so they hatched a plan right there to push for an independent commission. The result of that personal encounter was the 9/11 Commission Report, the definitive account of that day, and the blueprint for a wholesale overhaul of America’s intelligence infrastructure.
“McCain and I happened to be just sitting together, talking,” Lieberman told me. “And something came out of it that when I look back on it was maybe the most important thing I did.”
D.C. in many ways runs on in-person encounters like this. Those iconic pictures of officials carrying out tough negotiations or making hard decisions about the country’s national security, simply show … people in a room. Think Barack Obama ringed by Cabinet officials watching the Osama bin Laden raid, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing up from a crowded conference table to admonish Donald Trump.
But the coronavirus pandemic is a new kind of crisis for Washington—one that requires the kind of emergency decision making facilitated by people huddled together in an office even as physical proximity itself risks exacerbating the crisis. Just in the past few days, two members of Congress tested positive for the virus—right after passing urgent legislation to deal with that very virus while sharing a room with more than 400 of their colleagues.
D.C. has now reported one coronavirus death, adding to the more than 200 across the country so far and nearly 12,000 worldwide. One particular conference illustrated the dangers of the kinds of networking gatherings D.C. is accustomed to, when a single infected person at the Conservative Political Action Conference met with numerous lawmakers, sending some into self-quarantine. The president himself, who had brief contact with at least one member of a Brazilian delegation who tested positive for the coronavirus, later tested negative.
The business of Washington, including the federal government, which shapes lives around the entire country, depends to a unique degree on human interaction. It’s not just that Congress currently has no way to pass laws, including coronavirus relief, without physically meeting and casting votes, social distancing be damned. The people working in and around politics—the lobbyists, PR folks, journalists, think tankers, lawyers, and nonprofit employees whose work depends on proximity to government—also find that it’s very hard to do their jobs without meeting people.
D.C. is a “handshake-and-a-lunch town,” according to CR Wooters, a former Hill staffer and lobbyist who co-founded the public-affairs firm Fio360.
Just a week ago, work-related socializing was still in full swing, even as Capitol Hill, executive-branch offices, and companies around the city were sending staffers home. The coronavirus was already starting to rip through states across the U.S. by last Friday, but in Washington, the power diners were still power dining at Cafe Milano; the lawmakers, many of them over 65, were still hobnobbing at the Capitol. Philippe Reines, a former Hillary Clinton adviser and now consultant, was invited to a private dinner discussion about the virus—that would feature a bunch of people ringing a dining table with place settings presumably fewer than six feet apart—and he was even tempted to go, he told me.
But now the crisis is forcing a change in behavior that just a few weeks ago would have looked impossible in D.C. The government is allowing mass teleworking for federal agencies; the White House and Pentagon are enforcing social distancing at press briefings. Think-tank events and book readings are moving online. Even the leaders of some of the richest countries on Earth are meeting via teleconference in June now that the Camp David G7 summit has been scrapped. It turns out, to the extent that it requires people moving information around, politics is indeed a function many internet applications can handle—you just need to see the pixels, not necessarily the people.
Still, actual face time is surviving in the city. It’s evident, for instance, on Capitol Hill—the engine of D.C.’s in-person culture to begin with—and at the White House, where senior administration officials and health experts are holding emergency meetings and delivering urgent information to the nation via daily briefings.
Ordinarily, Congress and its accompanying office buildings are teeming with politicians, staffers, journalists, and lobbyists. Aides gather behind members in hearings, passing notes; lobbyists and journalists plant themselves in the corridor off the Senate floor to snag impromptu meetings they’d never otherwise get. Members who might rarely interact otherwise size colleagues up during votes or scurry over to their desk to trade criticisms or ideas. In other words, Capitol Hill is a “petri dish” for the spread of the virus.
While some Hill staffers have been working from home for weeks now, lawmakers have to be physically present to cast votes; for instance, on the massive coronavirus relief package passed last weekend. Some are calling for rule changes to allow remote voting, which leaders in both chambers have dismissed. “Come in and vote and depart the chamber so we don’t have gaggles of conversations here on the floor," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested, according to the Associated Press.
In other parts of the D.C., there is less insistence on being there in person. Steven A. Cook, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told me the enforced social distancing could actually be an opportunity to step away from the posturing and allow for other kinds of work to get done. If D.C. social life slows down, he said, “maybe people can take a deep breath; they can actually do some book research or do some reading.”
Gloria Story Dittus, who is in crisis public relations, has resorted to doing her job by making multiple phone calls (18 on one particular Tuesday) and scheduling a few “walking meetings” with people who live in her neighborhood while maintaining social distance. Now is not the time to develop relationships. “In a crisis, you get to know somebody because you’re in the foxhole and you’re fighting together,” she told me. “But it’s not like, Oh, I need to get to know so-and-so, so I’ll invite him over to a salon dinner.”
When I spoke with Reines earlier this week, he hadn’t left his apartment in days. Cafe Milano has closed until further notice. The coronavirus dinner event got canceled. . Reines doubts he’s missing anything now that he would need to see. But he doesn’t think it will last forever.
“There is a good part of Washington that relies on face time,” Reines said. “It’s unclear whether a job that requires actual face time can be shifted to virtual Apple FaceTime. And I don’t think anyone is going to believe the answer to that is yes.”