Congress closes US Capitol to public until April 1

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is shutting down the US Capitol, House and Senate office buildings to the public until April 1 in reaction to coronavirus.

Both chambers will continue to conduct business, but without a public, in-person audience.

The Democratic-led House will vote Thursday on a novel coronavirus response package that would provide support to families affected by the pandemic, including paid sick leave, free testing and funding increases to food security programs.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the chamber plans to pass the bill on Thursday before sending it to the Republican-controlled Senate, which is not expected to immediately take up the legislation.

The package comes as officials in Washington race to find ways to combat the impact of the novel coronavirus, which as of Thursday morning has infected 1,274 people in the US and led to 38 deaths in the country. President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that he we was sharply restricting travel to the US from more than two dozen European countries in an effort to slow the pandemic's spread.

Earlier this week, Trump and his top economic officials pitched senate Republicans on economic stimulus proposals including a payroll tax cut and other policy proposals meant to ease the economic fallout from the outbreak, but multiple sources told CNN no consensus was reached on the proposals.

The sweeping legislation the House plans to vote on Thursday would provide free testing for the novel coronavirus, including for uninsured individuals. It would also provide funding for paid emergency leave for people either diagnosed with coronavirus or people who had to stop working to care for someone affected by the virus. Individuals who are eligible to get benefits could receive two-thirds of their average monthly earnings up to $4,000 for the month in which they have to take off 14 or more days of work. The bill would allow the benefit to be received for up to three months.

The proposal would set aside nearly $1 billion for food assistance for those affected by coronavirus, with $500 million being earmarked for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides nutritional assistance to millions of low-income women and their children, in order to provide additional support for women or mothers who are affected by the pandemic. Another $400 million would go to The Emergency Food Assistance Program in order to provide aid to food banks that are being met with a higher demand during the pandemic.

It would also set aside money to stabilize state unemployment programs that could also see an increase in demand during the pandemic, and would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to provide safety guidance on how to best protect health care workers from contracting the virus during the pandemic.

Last week, Trump signed an $8.3 billion response package to help combat the virus. The agreement provides $7.8 billion in appropriations to address the outbreak of coronavirus as well as an authorization for $500 million in mandatory spending to fund a telehealth program in an effort to expand access to health services for seniors.

Pelosi said in a statement on Wednesday that her party's forthcoming legislation "is focused directly on providing support for America's families, who must be our first priority in this emergency."

"We cannot fight coronavirus effectively unless everyone in our country who needs to be tested knows they can get their test free of charge. We cannot slow the coronavirus outbreak when workers are stuck with the terrible choice between staying home to avoid spreading illness and the paycheck their family can't afford to lose," the California Democrat said.

Officials pressed on testing capabilities

Lawmakers pressed administration officials on the US' coronavirus testing capabilities during a House briefing on the pandemic Thursday morning.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat and a physician, asked the officials why the US hasn't developed or purchased drive-through testing technology, according to a member in the room.

Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the FDA, didn't have a good answer, the member in the room said, but Hahn said that American testing has more regulations and takes longer to get set up.

The officials told the lawmakers present during the hearing that the FDA is working with more than 50 groups around the clock to create tests, and that the FDA will have a phone number available today for labs seeking guidance on creating tests.

When pressed by lawmakers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Stephen Redd said South Korea's testing is good but couldn't give an answer on why the US can't duplicate it, the member said.

As he left today's briefing, Republican Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina said there is "a growing frustration among members as a whole to get more definitive answers" from the administration about testing capabilities.

He said the CDC has "struggled to give a really strong answer" on why the US hasn't been able to duplicate testing measures that are being used in places like South Korea.

On Wednesday, the first known instance of a congressional staffer with the virus was made public. The person, an employee of Sen. Maria Cantwell's office, had no known contact with the Washington state Democrat or other members of Congress, according to her office.

Several members of Congress have so far taken steps to isolate themselves amid the outbreak as a precaution.

This story has been updated with additional reporting on concerns from members of Congress.

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