The average age of a United States senator is 62.9 years old, with five senators over the age of 80, and despite being at heightened risk of coronavirus because of their jobs and demographic profile, senators insist they will not need to shut down Congress in the event of a pandemic.
The Senate is sometimes jokingly described as the world’s greatest retirement home. But the advanced age of so many federal politicians is also a major vulnerability. Most people who contract coronavirus will have mild symptoms or none at all, but the people at most acute risk are those age 65 and older. Almost half of the Senate — 48 out of 100 senators — are 65 or older.
Every week, senators and members of the House travel between their homes all across the country, where they interact with constituents, and Washington, DC, where they all congregate in the same rooms.
Despite this, senators insist they do not see Congress being shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak. Several told BuzzFeed News they are not planning to do their jobs any differently. “We’re going to continue to live our lives and do our jobs. We’re just going to probably wash our hands twice as much,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said he plans to continue holding town halls and community meetings, even if he has to wear a face mask. But he agrees that it is likely only a matter of time before coronavirus hits Congress.
“I fully anticipate that folks here will end up with it. We just do too much travel,” said Tester. But he rejects the idea of shutting down Congress, saying the legislative branch becoming “paralyzed” could do more damage than good. “I think if you start doing that kind of stuff then what, are we going to shut down the elections? I think it would set a poor precedent.”
A study of 70,000 Chinese patients with coronavirus put the mortality rate at around 2%. But that rate rose to 8% for people in their seventies and up to 15% for people age 80 and over.
As of yet there are no formal plans for how Congress will respond to the risk of coronavirus, but congressional leaders are meeting Wednesday to discuss it. Thousands of visitors walk through the halls of Congress every day. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said his staff is reviewing policies on how to protect the health of politicians and visitors, but that he won’t comment on hypothetical scenarios.
Senators were unanimously confident in Congress’s ability to weather a potential outbreak.
“Speaking for the octogenarians that are here, most of us are pretty fit,” said Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who is 83.
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor, said that most members of Congress lead an active lifestyle, which would put them at lower risk of suffering life-threatening effects of the virus. He said the key thing to look at is underlying health, not age. “Given that most folks who work here live fairly active lifestyles, I think we should not overstate the need for concern,” he said.
When a reporter responded that at least two senators had recently undergone cancer treatment, Cassidy said individuals may get specific precautions from their doctors.