It had been less than eight hours since Rep. Anthony Brindisi’s office announced he was self-quarantining after being exposed to the coronavirus, and he was already on the phone with thousands of his constituents in upstate New York, fielding a barrage of questions about how to protect themselves from the same fate.
“I am self isolating in my home for 14 days per the recommendation of physicians,” he told members of his district gathered on the call, after ticking off the components of the House’s relief package, urging them to wash their hands, and assuring them he was not exhibiting any symptoms. “I want you to know,” he continued, “that our office is still here to serve you.”
He stayed on the line for the next hour, answering over a dozen questions about everything from the lack of available testing to whether people should continue working their jobs if they are considered high risk.
This is governing in the era of a global pandemic, the likes of which has not been seen in a century. For decades, the federal government has felt distant from most people’s daily lives. Now, as Americans bunker down in their homes, they are hanging on every word that comes out of Washington and their governor’s office, and the gap between elected officials and the people they represent has never seemed smaller. Lawmakers are batting the same unknowns as their constituents, and often face the same health risks. At the same time they are scrambling to pass massive legislation to help millions of Americans and to listen to their questions—even when they don’t have the answers.
Since the House of Representatives left Washington last week, the town halls that lawmakers were planning in their districts went virtual after the federal government advised against large gatherings. At seven recent “tele-town halls” across the country — five of them held by Democrats and two by Republicans — thousands of people called into each event as constituents sought their elected officials’ guidance in this unprecedented time.
Like the 10,000 that called to talk to Brindisi, another record-breaking 10,000 people phoned into the town hall of North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker. Six thousand called in to hear Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin; 5,000 to hear Sean Patrick Maloney; 4,000 participated in Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan’s event, and 3,500 in Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler’s.
“Typically we have hundreds of people on the line,” Houlahan said in an interview with TIME the day after her town hall. “We couldn’t screen all of the questions. There were people who wanted to ask questions but couldn’t get on the line.” She and her staff spent the next 36 hours making an additional 200 phone calls to those constituents.
Nearly all of the lawmakers had public health or medical officials on hand to help with responses for the many constituents who had medical questions, as well as local public officials standing by to answer other specific queries. “We’re trying to make sure we have people on the line who have expertise or experience in the things people are worried about,” Houlahan said.
But even though constituents had plenty of questions, the lawmakers didn’t always know the answers, particularly when it came to the testing deficit people are experiencing across the country. Even the experts on hand frequently admitted they did not know the answers, or could not provide reassurances about when coronavirus testing would be universally available.
A man in Washington State, one of the areas hit hardest by the virus, who phoned into Herrera-Beutler’s town hall described how his teenage daughter with Downs Syndrome fell ill with what seemed like the flu earlier this month, and was unable to procure a coronavirus test even though she had trouble breathing. Although she was improving, he still wanted to know what happened. “She is one of the most vulnerable citizens in our area and they are refusing to get her tested,” he asked. “Why was she denied a test?”
“I’m not sure who is to blame for this,” Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick, the local official on the call, replied. “One of the issues we’ve been facing is testing capacity.” He noted that testing has been increasing, but that priority was being placed on those who were already hospitalized. “Unfortunately, a lot of the supplies that are used for testing are also made in China, and the supply chain has been interrupted. We need to do more,” he said.
Herrera-Beutler told the man she had been “banging on every door I can” to get more test kits and working across the aisle with Rep. Pramila Jayapal to meet that objective. “That has been a top effort for me,” she said.
Exchanges like this one spanned geographic and political divides in tele-town halls across the country. Lawmakers frequently assured their constituents that the supermarket shelves would remain stocked, but neither they nor the doctors could make the same promises when it came to tests.
In these moments, the only thing the public officials could do was reiterate the information that was already out there: that more testing was hopefully coming soon, and that they were doing what they could. But the scarce supply right now meant they were effectively being rationed for patients who had come from affected countries abroad or were displaying the most severe symptoms.
“We’ve gotten a lot of questions about testing. I think it’s really important that we acknowledge we wish we had more tests, that there’s been a lag in getting the tests,” Slotkin said. “It’s not just us here in Michigan, it’s across the country.”
With economic and health security on the line for so many, the partisan infighting that defined last year in Washington and has been a regular feature at town halls across the country faded to the background as people worried asked about testing, or tried to find out how the stimulus packages would benefit them directly.
A woman in Maloney’s upstate New York district, whose husband is a jazz musician and could not line up any work until August, talked on the line about her financial anxieties, and wondered what the government was going to do to help. “What is happening specifically for people who work in the gig economy?” she asked.
Maloney pointed to the possibility of the cash payments to Americans, which Republicans have floated as part of a third economic stimulus package. “The number one thing we gotta do is get money into the hands of people as fast as possible,” Maloney said, highlighting the importance of tax deferments and ensuring refunds. “We can send you a direct payment. What’s being discussed in Washington right now is about $1000 [per person].”
“My strategy,” he continued, “is to give families like yours everything you need to get through this period.”
Brindisi offered his constituents similar sentiments. He tried to reassure them by pushing for a unified front, even as he looked ahead to two weeks of social isolation at his home in Utica, New York. “We’re in this together,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck right now, but we’re going to get through this.”