March 12, 2020 / 1:13 PM / 23 days ago

U.S. federal buildings put away the welcome mat as coronavirus hits

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress, Supreme Court and White House were closing their doors to much of the public on Thursday to minimize health risks as the coronavirus spreads across the United States, officials said.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol building exterior is seen at sunset in Washington, U.S., January 21, 2020. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger/File Photo

Authorities ordered an end to tourist visits to the U.S. Capitol complex - home to the House of Representatives and Senate - beginning on Thursday, after a Senate staffer tested positive for the new coronavirus. The Supreme Court and White House later announced their own closings.

All three sites attract thousands of visits every year. Washington’s many free museums, monuments and historic sites make it a popular destination for tourists.

Norberto Perez, 51, of Miami, was one of the last sightseers in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Thursday afternoon, shortly before the building closed to tourists until April 1.

Perez had been scheduled to visit on Friday, but received a notice to come immediately or lose his chance. He was glad he had made it, but understood the need to minimize risk.

“We don’t want any more people to get sick,” he said.

Congress had been scheduled to leave Washington for a recess next week. But it was unclear when that would start as Republicans and Democrats negotiated over how to ease the economic effects of the pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate recess would be postponed for work on the legislation.

Senator Maria Cantwell’s U.S. capital office was closed after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Her home state, Washington, is among those hit hardest by the virus.

Several other lawmakers also closed offices as a precaution.

Senator Bill Cassidy, whose staff will be teleworking, said youthful aides could be carriers and not show symptoms, potentially spreading the disease to older visitors - who are at greater risk - if his office remained open.

“I look at the demographics of who is working there, and who is visiting ... and I don’t think the twain should meet,” Cassidy, a doctor, told journalists.

A few lawmakers, including Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Don Beyer, have self-quarantined after coming in contact with someone who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

Senator Rick Scott announced on Thursday that he was self-quarantining after being in the same room with an aide to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who tested positive.

President Donald Trump was photographed standing beside the staff member. The White House said it was monitoring the situation closely.

Reporting by Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Alex Alper, Makini Brice and Steve Holland; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Tom Brown

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