In handshake-happy Washington, old habits die hard amid coronavirus outbreak

President Trump failed to calm investors after his primetime address on coronavirus. CNN’s Christine Romans reports.

Washington is a town devoted to personal interaction: one-on-one meetings, working lunches, and handshakes — lots and lots of handshakes. But the spread of coronavirus in the nation’s capital is disrupting many of the close contact customs that are a DC hallmark.

Some government officials are avoiding shaking hands altogether. Others have spent the week carrying around bottles of hand sanitizer and not touching the safety rails on the Capitol subway trains. Think tanks and lobbying shops are directing employees to work from home. Some are shutting down entirely.

At the Capitol, the mood shifted Wednesday night, when news broke that a staff member for Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell had tested positive for the virus — the first known case in Congress. By Thursday morning, the ripple effect was becoming clear. Multiple lawmakers closed their Capitol Hill offices. The House and Senate Sergeants at Arms ordered limited access to the Capitol and surrounding buildings.

By Thursday morning, it felt like a new reality was setting in over Washington. But as late as Wednesday afternoon it was still business-as-usual for some. One group of Washington insiders, primarily allies of President Donald Trump, were still maintaining unofficial protocol set by the President and Vice President, both of whom have said they’re going to keep shaking hands.

On Thursday, even Trump said he and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar did not shake hands at their White House meeting.

Multiple Republican lawmakers told CNN on Wednesday they’re going to keep shaking hands, despite the potential exposure of some of their colleagues to an infected individual at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, told CNN before the news about Cantwell’s staffer broke that he wasn’t changing his handshake habit.

“I’m not fist bumping or giving a chicken wing or whatever it is that we’re doing nowadays,” Lankford said.

The recent experience of a tech lobbyist captured the political divide. In one meeting this week with Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, the lobbyist told CNN that Hawley “insisted on shaking our hands,” while in a separate meeting with Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, the senator’s staff would “barely wave from a distance,” the lobbyist said. (Wyden’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

But Hawley already seemed to be changing his tune, telling CNN Wednesday his office is considering avoiding handshakes, including at regular constituent meetings in his DC office. And Hawley’s fellow Missouri Republican, Sen. Roy Blunt, told CNN Wednesday he will try to no longer shake hands “starting today.”

“No social distancing”

In the search for handshake alternatives, the fist-bump and elbow-tap appear to have caught on. Some have resorted to a simple wave. The attending physician on Capitol Hill even suggested that members should greet others with the Vulcan salute, a V-shaped hand gesture, from the classic television series “Star Trek.”

This comes more naturally to some than others, particularly those used to formality. At a White House ceremony Tuesday awarding the Medal of Freedom to retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, several audience members were seen giving each other elbow nudges, while most of the attending Cabinet and administration officials preferred the old-fashioned way. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was seen questioning whether to shake hands with other attendees.

“No social distancing,” Milley said jokingly, before appearing to shake someone’s hand anyway.

At a briefing at the State Department Wednesday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a hearty handshake to Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Destro.

Though some seemed willing to change. On Tuesday, Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant of the US Coast Guard, bumped elbows with reporters on Capitol Hill after testifying before the House Appropriations Committee.

The regular act of shaking hands has largely disappeared in the halls of the Pentagon and in the offices of several lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“We have posted in our office that we are a no handshake office and we’re publicly talking about that in every meeting,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, the epicenter of the US outbreak. “We are being very careful to wipe down our offices whenever we have meetings and making sure our employees are staying home if they are sick. And we are trying to make sure any of our constituents who are coming — and many of them have canceled — are taking the same steps.”

Older lawmakers at risk

For older members of the House and Senate, the threat of coronavirus is greater, with the CDC giving guidance this week that individuals over 60 should avoid large crowds and stock up on supplies at home. Sen. Pat Roberts, 83, told reporters this week his staff had given him “marching orders” that he needed to avoid touching surfaces without first wiping them down.

During the interview, he braced himself on the Senate train with his elbows the only part of his body touching the handrails on the ride.

And Sen. Chuck Grassley, 86, told CNN Wednesday that he was continuing with business as usual, running his usual three miles and keeping his plans to hold 12 county meetings in Iowa during the upcoming recess.

“I am doing the usual things, trying not to shake hands with people, washing my hands and being careful about sneezing and stuff like that. Beyond that, not much. I am not avoiding meetings. Yesterday and today, I always have eight 15-minute meetings with constituents, I am continuing those meetings, just not shaking hands like I usually would,” Grassley said.

But old habits still die hard. Indiana Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican, says he’s been washing his hands more vigilantly but won’t look to get rid of the handshake.

“If someone wants to elbow bump, I’ll let that other individual determine it,” Braun told CNN Wednesday. “I’m going to shake hands because you’re not going to eliminate that in this job anyway.”

“I guess we’re doing this now”

Elsewhere in Washington, a town full of ambitious networkers struggled with how to press the flesh without actually doing so.

Jim Rizzo, a top official at the National Association of Home Builders, one of Washington’s most influential trade associations, told CNN that a group representing the Canadian government set the tone at a Wednesday meeting.

“I was prepared to shake their hand, and they offered their elbows first,” Rizzo said. “And they said ‘I guess we’re doing this now.'”

At a Wednesday event at the Atlantic Council in downtown DC, a crowd of lawmakers, Hill staff, academics and former and current agency officials awkwardly navigated the new pandemic protocols with elbows, salutes and surreptitious applications of hand sanitizer.

Two former intelligence officials laughed as they bumped elbows and exchanged greetings. Other attendees started toward each other as if to exchange hugs or cheek kisses, only to stop and laugh self-consciously.

At one point, one older man grabbed his young neighbor’s hand and vigorously pumped away before looking down, pausing and saying, “I’m not supposed to do that anymore, am I!?”

When he turned away, the young man quickly slipped a tiny bottle of Purell from his pocket and energetically rubbed the viscous liquid over his palms.