By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate Democrat on Wednesday accused Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of endangering the lives of Senate staff if he brings them back to work next week without effective safeguards against coronavirus infection in place.
Senator Chris Van Hollen, whose state of Maryland contains several suburbs of Washington where federal workers live, said he had written to McConnell to demand details of how staff will be protected when the Senate returns to session on Monday.
"I am ready to see senators resume work in the Capitol, but without effective safeguards in place, Mitch McConnell is endangering the lives of the staff who work there – including many of my constituents – and undermining regional efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus," Van Hollen said in a statement. "This is unacceptable."
The response to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 58,000 Americans has begun to break down along party lines with many Democrats urging continued social distancing and some Republicans arguing that the widespread closures of businesses are taking too heavy an economic toll on the nation.
The number of coronavirus cases is still rising in the Washington D.C. region, which is one reason why the Democratic-majority House of Representatives decided not to return to work next week.
But McConnell has stuck to the Republican-run Senate's plan to be back at work on Monday after an extended recess, saying Wednesday that senators would not "sit on the sidelines." McConnell's office did not reply to a request for comment on Van Hollen's letter.
"If people on the front lines are willing to work during the pandemic, we should be as well," McConnell said on Fox News Radio. "We'll practice proper safeguards in the wake of this and work safely in the Senate but get back to business. We're not going to sit on the sidelines"
Van Hollen noted that some staff and members of the Capitol Police had already tested positive for the coronavirus. Last week 11 workers renovating a House office building were found to have the virus.
At least a half-dozen members of the U.S. Congress had contracted the virus by the time lawmakers went into recess late last month, and over 30 others went into self-quarantine.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)