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Congress and the White House cancel public tours amid coronavirus spread in nation's capital

'We appreciate the understanding of those with planned visits interrupted by this necessary, but prudent, decision'

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Due to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, visitors to Washington, D.C., for the rest of the month of March will not be able to tour the U.S. Capitol, and tours of the White House have been suspended as well.

In a joint statement issued Thursday morning, the sergeants at arms for the House of Representatives and the Senate announced that the Capitol complex would be closed to the general public until the beginning of April, as well as the closure of the Capitol Visitor Center to all tours for the same amount of time.

The new policy will last from 5 p.m. on Thursday until 8 a.m. on April 1, during which time only members of Congress, congressional staff, credentialed press, and people on official business will be able to get into the House and Senate office buildings and the Capitol.

"We are taking this temporary action out of concern for the health and safety of congressional employees as well as the public," the announcement said. "We appreciate the understanding of those with planned visits interrupted by this necessary, but prudent, decision."

The announcement was made less than 24 hours after Capitol Hill's first case of coronavirus was announced Wednesday night. The infected individual is a staffer for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), but did not have any "known contact with the senator or other members of Congress" and "has been in isolation since starting to show symptoms," according to a statement from the senator's office.

No members of Congress have been reported as testing positive for the coronavirus so far, though multiple congressmen have recently opted to isolate out of caution after being exposed to people who have. Those include Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The White House has canceled its public tours as well, according to its 24-hour Visitors Office information line.

"Out of an abundance of caution, all White House tours have been temporarily suspended effective immediately," an automated message on the line said when Blaze Media called Thursday morning.

"We truly appreciate your understanding," the message tells callers, while asking that those affected "address all questions to the point of contact with whom you have booked your tour."

The White House did not respond immediately to Blaze Media's request for comment about the automated message.

To put a further damper on visitors' upcoming plans, the National Cherry Blossom Festival announced Wednesday that it would cancel or postpone multiple festival events taking place before the end of the month in response to the viral outbreak.

"It is a difficult decision and one that we do not take lightly," festival president and CEO Diana Mayhew said in a statement. "The health safety of the performers, guests, volunteers, and festival staff is our priority."

The District of Columbia's first coronavirus case was reported over the weekend after an Episcopal priest tested positive for the disease on Saturday; since then, local officials have taken their own steps to contain the spread, which includes Mayor Muriel Bowser's state of emergency declaration on Wednesday after the number of confirmed cases had grown to 10.

Both the festival and the congressional announcements cite a Wednesday recommendation from the D.C. health department that all "non-essential mass gatherings, including conferences and conventions, be postponed or cancelled" and that "any social, cultural, or entertainment events where large crowds are anticipated be reconsidered by the organizer" until the end of the month.

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