WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sen. Lindsey Graham is offering elbow bumps instead of handshakes, while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is putting her hand over her heart in greeting. Sen. Bill Cassidy is offering up hand sanitizer and Sen. Marco Rubio is washing his hands so often that he has “to start moisturizing.”
In a city where the meet-and-greet is hardwired into the culture of political life, the coronavirus is rapidly changing the norms — even before a first case arrives in the nation's capital.
Government officials are scrambling to monitor the national situation while also taking pains to keep the virus out of their own very-public workplace. Tourism officials are admitting that virus fears will inevitably cut into what should be the start of peak tourist season.
“Obviously there will be an impact,” said Greg O'Dell, president of Events DC, which owns Washington's convention center. “For those who are comfortable traveling, we do want them to travel to our great city.”
Springtime in Washington normally brings waves of school trips and conventions, plus the thousands who come for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which starts on March 20. But the cancellations have already begun. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank announced that their annual spring meetings in Washington would be switched to an online “virtual format” in order to ensure the health and safety of participants.
So far the coronavirus has killed at least 3,000 people and infected more than 89,000 around the world. The virus has made small inroads into the U.S. so far. Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of D.C.'s health department, said there had been no reported infections in Washington so far.
Theresa Impastato, chief safety officer at the Washington Metro, told the Metro board late last month that the Metro had activated its "pandemic taskforce" back in late January. That included initiating extra cleaning protocols and stockpiling protective gear and disinfectants.
The White House has quietly revised the admissions procedures for journalists without regular press passes. Those requesting admission to the White House complex are now required to state whether they have been out of the country in the last 30 days.
President Donald Trump is a self-professed germaphobe with a longtime aversion to shaking hands with strangers. “One of the curses of American society is the simple act of shaking hands, and the more successful and famous one becomes the worse this terrible custom seems to get,” Trump wrote in his 1997 book, “Art of the Comeback.”
He told reporters Wednesday, “I haven’t touched my face in weeks. I miss it.”
Over at the legislative branch, lawmakers and aides widely expect the virus to make an appearance in the small city that is Capitol Hill. It’s the workplace of roughly 30,000 people and a tourist destination for an estimated 3 million to 5 million visitors annually from around the globe.
The famous domed building, its tunnels, cafeterias and office buildings are like a giant, politically divisive petri dish. Rubio, a Republican from Florida, said he has been steadfastly washing his hands. “They’re like drier than they've ever been,” he said. ”I have to start moisturizing.”
Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, have found their alternatives to handshaking. Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who also is a doctor, offered hand sanitizer to reporters in mid-interviewer.
Thus far, touristy Washington hasn't shut down any sites, but it's preparing should the virus arrive in the nation's capital.
Elliott Ferguson, president of the tourism promotion agency Destination DC, said the only message Washington can send to prospective visitors is “the fact that we're proactive, prepared and open for business.”
China, the epicenter of the original outbreak with more than 80,000 reported cases and more than 2,900 deaths, is Washington's No. 3 market for international tourists, after Canada and Mexico, Ferguson said.
Linda St. Thomas, spokeswoman for the Smithsonian network of museums, said the Smithsonian intends to keep functioning “until we hear otherwise from the District health officials or the Centers for Disease Control.”
St. Thomas said museums would only close as part of some sort of larger national health emergency.
“It wouldn't be just us. It would be part of a bigger thing,” she said.
As for the Cherry Blossom Festival, it's still on. The annual event commemorates trees donated by the Japanese government 108 years ago and draws thousands of tourists to the Tidal Basin near the National Mall. Peak bloom is expected March 27 to March 30.
“It's one of our iconic attractions and we want everyone to come and enjoy them," said Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Zeke Miller, Laurie Kellman, Lisa Mascaro, Padmananda Rama, and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.