Virtual representation: Nevada’s members of Congress adjust to pandemic life

By: - April 10, 2020 5:58 am

(Image by forcal35 from Pixabay)

WASHINGTON —  Near-constant phone calls. Zoom meetings. Internet town halls. Empty flights to Washington. A lot of handwashing. 

This is the new normal for Nevada’s congressional delegation.

The COVID-19 virus has upended work in the U.S. Congress, as it has in most other workplaces. Nevada lawmakers have shifted the focus of their work, and the way they are doing it. 

“Oh my gosh, it’s been a significant change,” said Rep. Susie Lee, a Nevada Democrat. “Everyone is doing the job that they need to be doing … but now we are all working from home.”

Like many of her congressional colleagues, Lee shuttered her office doors in March, canceled in-person meetings and sent staff to work from home. She has kept up with her constituents through live-stream discussions, phone calls, mail and email.

“I have been preaching the practice of social distancing and sheltering in place, so my staff is leading the way by showing how you can still get the job done by staying safe and keeping your neighbors and family safe,” Lee said.

Nevada had nearly 2,500 positive COVID-19 cases as of April 9, according to Nevada Health Response. The state had tested nearly 22,000 people.

Lee and other lawmakers say they are busier than ever, but they’re not immune to feeling a little stir-crazy. 

“I am a social creature, and I am ready to go see people,” Lee said in an interview. “I am taking a lot of walks and doing a lot of hiking to keep my mind straight. Obviously I am busy reading up on everything and replying to emails. It’s certainly not been a vacation.”

U.S. House lawmakers have largely been back in their districts since mid-March, but were summoned back to Washington to vote on the massive coronavirus relief package at the end of last month. Lee said her flight from Las Vegas only had a few passengers — on a route that usually has no seats to spare.

“It was really eerie, there was no one in the airport,” said Lee, who traveled with Lysol and face masks.

Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said her connecting flight from Cleveland had only three passengers — all of them members of Congress. Now she is back at home and adjusting to the unprecedented scenario of working exclusively from her house.

“You’ve got to get up every morning and make the bed,” Titus said.

Titus is following precautions and staying home, except to check in on her 90-year-old mother to make sure she has what she needs. Gov. Steve Sisolak issued stay-at-home orders on April 1.

“I very much miss being out in the district. I am very much a public person,” said Titus.

Titus is also hosting virtual events. Earlier this week, she read to school children by video, with her fluffy cat, Tio, in her lap. More than 3,000 people dialed in for a tele-town hall Titus hosted Tuesday — the largest turnout she said she has ever had for a call like that.

“It is amazing,” said Titus. “But it’s really a commentary on how people want information right now.”

Amodei’s office still open

The one member of Nevada’s congressional delegation who has not closed his offices is Rep. Mark Amodei, the lone Republican in the federal delegation. Amodei has kept his offices open but with more precautions, minimal staff in the office and no walk-in visitors.

“We were social distancing before we knew about social distancing,” Amodei said of his district, which includes the whole northern third of the state and large rural areas.

Signs are posted on the door asking any visitors to call or text first before trying to set up an appointment. Amodei said no one has asked to meet in person in the last three weeks.

Amodei works from home most days and goes into his Reno office once or twice a week. But the habits of his commute have changed.

“I don’t touch the gas pump anymore with just my bare hand, God forbid,” Amodei said. “All that stuff has changed, as far as trying to do the best you can so you don’t get sick.”

“I grew up in Carson City, in kind of a blue-collar neighborhood. You didn’t wash your hands if you couldn’t see dirt on them or something,” Amodei said. “Now the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is go wash my hands.” 

Most of Amodei’s staff are working from home, but one or two staffers go into his Washington office and about five come into his Reno office. His Capitol Hill staff can walk to work and sit far away from each other. Those in Reno can go into their own offices with the doors closed. 

Rent, mortgages and car payments

Before they left Washington, lawmakers approved a historic $2.2 trillion coronavirus response bill.

Now, they are responding to a slew of questions on how constituents can access benefits. Most questions in tele-town halls this week centered on how to access unemployment benefits and  stimulus checks.

Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford said he’s hearing from anxious people with questions like, “How are we going to make it? How are we going to meet obligations for rent and mortgages and car payments?” Those people don’t know when or if they’ll be able to go back to work, he said. 

Horsford said he is hunkered down at home in part because of concern about his own health, given pre-existing conditions, but is “probably communicating even more” with staff and constituents on calls and online. The 46-year-old had a six-way bypass on his heart in 2013.

Nevada could be the state that will be hit hardest financially by the business closures due to the virus, according to an analysis by Moody’s Analytics. Resorts, gambling and other “non-essential businesses” in Nevada have been closed across the state since March 17, before Sisolak’s stay-at-home orders. 

Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation has been overwhelmed with requests for unemployment benefits. There were nearly 245,000 new claims over a period of three weeks, more than all the claims in the previous year combined.

Participants in town halls this week said they were put on hold for long periods trying to file unemployment claims. They also encountered busy signals and log-in problems.

Lawmakers urged constituents to file online if they can, watch the new video tutorials that detail the process, and write down passwords and have them ready.

“Don’t hesitate to call my office if you need someone to help you go through it,” Titus said in closing the telephone town hall.

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Nevada Current.