March 9, 2020 / 7:55 PM / 19 days ago

U.S government, Congress take steps to slow spread of coronavirus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government, which employs about 2.1 million people, is seeking to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected 111,000 people in 105 countries, by restricting some travel and planning to expand telework. Nearly a quarter of federal workers are in the Washington metropolitan area.

A man with a face mask walks down the stairs of a library at Columbia University in New York City, where classes on Monday and Tuesday were suspended because someone on the campus was under quarantine from exposure to the coronavirus, in New York, U.S., March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The Office of Personnel Management, which sets personnel policy for the government, said in a memo that it strongly encouraged agencies to review emergency plans to ensure “continuity in government.” Portions of those plans include relying on telework and “social distancing,” where people refrain from getting near one another or touching.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill appear to be discussing what to do next.

In Congress, comments by Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate, could suggest that lawmakers and health officials may be waiting for coronavirus cases to strike on Capitol Hill before moving to more stringent restrictions. Durbin suggested that there may be an important discussion with leadership later on Monday about contingency plans.

“We’ve not had any direct conversations with leadership. I assume we will today. We should. We’re governed by events. I mean, if the incidents of infection gets close to home, as it did with the CPAC conference, then we’ve got to take it seriously,” the Illinois Democrat told Reuters.

The average age for lawmakers at the beginning of the 116th Congress was 57.6 years for representatives and 62.9 years for senators.

Congress is on recess next week.

Away from Capitol Hill, the Energy Department barred travel to China and Iran, which are hard hit by the coronavirus, as well as other areas. The department also canceled all non-essential international travel and is looking at plans to cut back on domestic travel. Agency officials were further told to defer all in-person visits from or meetings with people who live in China, Iran, Italy or South Korea.

The Justice Department said it was monitoring the situation but did not describe further steps.

The Federal Trade Commission has instructed employees to minimize non-critical travel, international and domestic, and to refrain from attending non-critical professional gatherings that attract attendees from overseas or around the United States.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has canceled some foreign travel and is allowing essential overseas trips on a case-by-case basis. Domestic travel is permitted.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp said it had taken steps to limit non-essential international travel.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said it had reviewed its contingency plans, without elaborating.

A Securities and Exchange Commission spokeswoman said the agency was following government advice that staffers stay home when they are sick or when they have returned from coronavirus hot spots.

Reporting by Diane Bartz, Michelle Price, David Shepardson, Sarah Lynch and David Morgan; Editing by Peter Cooney

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