Another First for an Impeachment Trial: Meeting During a Pandemic

Outside the chamber, Capitol employees not only brought back velvet stanchions to keep journalists cordoned off from senators, but also carefully spaced out clear dots imprinted with footprints to offer a visual guide for distancing.

While more than 100 journalists had been credentialed in 2020, there are fewer than half that number this time, to ensure that social distancing could be maintained. A year ago, videos of reporters shuffling like waddles of penguins through the Senate basement after undecided senators went viral — and have since been shared again as a glaring reminder of how standards for personal proximity have changed during the pandemic.

Even with most lawmakers and some staff advisers now inoculated to ensure the continuity of government, the nine impeachment managers and their aides deliberated over how to ensure the proceedings did not become a superspreader event among those still awaiting a vaccination.

Congressional leaders made an effort to make sure that everyone who would be on the floor for the trial, including staff members, had an opportunity to be vaccinated before it began, according to people familiar with the planning. At one point, the impeachment managers discussed asking to hold the trial in a space larger than the Senate chamber, like the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium or even the Kennedy Center, to allow the participants to space themselves farther apart.

Ultimately, House managers sharply reduced the number of aides physically on campus during the trial and tightly policed who could come in and out of the rooms off the Senate floor set aside for the managers and key trial staff, according to a Democratic official involved in the planning.

Senators, typically required by trial rules to remain seated at their desks for the duration of each day’s arguments and presentations, were allowed to watch from a room just off the Senate floor or from the visitors gallery above. A pair of larger television screens were also installed in the balcony, to supplement screens on the Senate floor for lawmakers and reporters in the gallery.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, was one of the few lawmakers who took advantage of the bird’s-eye view seating, later telling reporters he “had a little bit better view” compared with his seat in the corner of the Senate chamber.

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