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U.S. Capitol reopens doors to visitors that were closed during pandemic

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy Hosts Photo Line And Media Availability In The Capitol's Statuary Hall
File: WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 19: Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) poses for photographs with members of the public before a news conference in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol on July 19, 2023 in Washington, DC.  Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

At the peak of Washington, D.C., tourism season, there are more signs of a post-COVID return of crowds and workers on Capitol Hill.

In testimony before senators and House members this week, Capitol Hill administrators reported they had completed the reopening of more of the office building doors, access points and entrances that were shuttered during COVID, while the campus was largely closed to visitors. As a result, the Capitol police chief acknowledged the reopening is adding some urgency to the agency's efforts to recruit officers to staff the checkpoints.

The Senate sergeant at arms said in a submission to the legislative committees Wednesday, "We have reopened the Capitol Visitor Center on Saturdays, so that the American people are able to safely and easily visit their seat of government. On the Senate side, we have reopened all doors that were open prior to COVID."

The architect of the Capitol released an estimate to a Senate panel stating that the peak population of workers on the grounds has again reached 30,000 people.    

But U.S. Capitol Police acknowledge a stubborn staffing shortage, even as the Capitol complex experiences a return of crowds and restored access to visitors. As of this past Friday, a report from the agency said the department is approximately 110 officers below its authorized staffing levels. In a written report to the Senate Rules Committee, Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger wrote, "Adequately staffing a campus door requires three to four officers per shift to ensure a proper level of security… Long lines are not only an inconvenience to Members, staff, and for visitors, they represent a security risk that, in these increasingly volatile times, the Department must address. While big picture reforms are significant and important, staffing daily mission requirements are vital."

But Manger said last week at a joint House-Senate hearing that some new recruitment efforts have been productive in "attracting good quality folks."   

"This is a unique police department," Manger told lawmakers. "We are appealing to folks who want to serve their country." 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has frequently credited Congressional administrators with re-opening the grounds fully to visitors this year.  McCarthy periodically greets and poses for photos with tourists before holding media events.  Earlier this month, his office announced a "pop-up photo line" with tourists inside the Capitol.  

The Capitol complex was closed, fully or partially, to visitors for more than a year during the COVID pandemic. 

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