WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats assailed Senator Mitch McConnell on Thursday for insisting on bringing the Senate back to Washington in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, saying it could imperil not only senators and their aides, but also large numbers of low-level employees, including racial minorities at higher risk of infection and death from Covid-19.
With coronavirus cases in the District of Columbia and neighboring Maryland and Virginia continuing to rise, and the region still on lockdown, senators in both parties are grappling with how to respond to the decision by Mr. McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, to put them back to work on Monday.
A number of Republican senators — including Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who is a medical doctor, and Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee — are planning for their staffs to continue to work from home, as they have done for the last month.
Democrats expressed concern for themselves, their aides and others who work in and around the Capitol. They have been particularly critical of the decision to return given that Mr. McConnell has not scheduled any coronavirus-related work, but is instead planning to move ahead on nominations, including of a conservative judge nominated by President Trump for a federal appeals court.
“We are going to scrutinize Leader McConnell’s plan very carefully and see if it does provide the needed protection for the staff and the workers that are here,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, told reporters on a conference call about how the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting minorities.
Nearly half of Washington’s population is black, and on Thursday’s conference call, Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, said he was concerned for unskilled workers in the Capitol complex who he said are “disproportionately minority.” Mr. Booker said he had been thinking in particular about the janitors who work in the Senate buildings late at night.
“Knowing that we are going to be pulling people against the rules of the city,” Mr. Booker said, “I do not know what the health justification of that is.”
Congress is exempt from many labor protection laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to provide a workplace free from certain hazards that could cause serious physical harm or death.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had initially planned for lawmakers to return to the Capitol on Monday as well, but abruptly reversed herself this week after Congress’s attending physician counseled against it, saying it carried health risks.
Aides to Mr. McConnell would not elaborate on Thursday about how he reached his decision to go forward anyway, and would not say whether he had consulted with the physician, Dr. Brian P. Monahan.
“If people on the front lines are willing to work during the pandemic, we should be as well,” Mr. McConnell said Wednesday 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.”
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, echoed those sentiments Thursday on Capitol Hill. He described the move as “a consensus decision,” adding that “if grocery clerks, if law enforcement personnel and front-line health care providers can operate safely,” so, too, could senators.
“This idea that we’re going hunker down and shelter in place for an indefinite period of time is just inconsistent with the reality of us needing to do our job,” he said.
Much of the region surrounding the Capitol remains hunkered down. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has issued an open-ended stay-at-home order. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has extended his state’s stay-at-home order until June 10. In Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, has also extended the district’s stay-at-home order until May 15.
In Washington, 4,323 people had tested positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday night, and 224 had died, according to figures gathered by the city. While Mr. Trump has insisted that the District’s caseload is “stable and declining,” Ms. Bowser has publicly disagreed, telling CNN on Tuesday that it has yet to reach its peak.
An internal administration document obtained by The New York Times said that as of Tuesday, “Washington, D.C., appears stable; however, many of the surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia show increased cases.”
Last Thursday, Ms. Bowser and the two governors made a joint bipartisan appeal to the Trump administration to keep federal employees working remotely.
“A continued federal telework policy will help save lives,” they wrote in a joint letter to Michael Rigas, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.
Ms. Pelosi said Thursday that her new plan was to reconvene the House the week of May 11, and begin consideration of another sweeping coronavirus response measure that could top $1 trillion.
House Republicans on Thursday chastised the Democrats for the scheduling reversal. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, said Thursday that he saw no reason the House should not be finding a way to get back to its business, taking precautions to guard against health risks.
“We would not want to do anything without doing it safely,” he said.
But in the Senate, Democrats said Mr. McConnell’s plan could be dangerous. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California — who at 86 is the oldest senator — sent Mr. McConnell and Mr. Schumer a letter on Wednesday urging Mr. McConnell to reconsider.
“He would bring 100 senators and many more staff members and reporters into close proximity while Washington itself remains under a stay-at-home order,” she wrote. “There is no way to do this without increased risk. This is the wrong example for the country.”
Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, who represents many federal employees including Capitol workers, said that while he was ready to return, it would be unfair to his constituents to do so.
“I am talking about the true front line workers — cafeteria workers, all the janitorial service workers, the police and security officials,” he said in an interview. “I have not seen any plan to insure their safety.”
Nicholas Fandos and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.