The reason, simply, is COVID-19. Only Barrett, senators, staff, and a select pool of congressional reporters are allowed inside the hearing room, and the U.S. Capitol and Senate office buildings have been closed to visitors since mid-March, according to a spokesperson for the Capitol Police.
“There are real impediments to having a full hearing because the people are not able to participate,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of Women’s March, referring to the the election that is just weeks away. “The people are being excluded from this in some of the most undemocratic ways possible.”
The rules against public access to the hearings are based on common sense, especially as several Republican lawmakers have repeatedly ignored basic public health precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. A recent White House reception to celebrate Barrett’s nomination, where attendees hugged, shook hands, and declined to wear masks, is now believed to have been a super-spreading event. The end result was a significant COVID-19 outbreak within the West Wing and Republican Senate delegations, with President Trump spending several days in the hospital
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary committee, Utah’s Mike Lee and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, also tested positive for the virus after the event, while committee chair senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declined to be tested in the first place.
So it would probably be a bad idea to allow the public into the tightly confined hearing room, especially with recently infected senators like Lee appearing in person and declining to keep a mask on while speaking. But that doesn’t mean progressive activists and protesters are staying on the sidelines this year.
With so many key issues at stake for progressives, including abortion access, LGBTQ rights, and health care — and with a presidential election just weeks away — activists still feel an urgent need to protest and oppose Barrett’s nomination.
“We are also working with partner organizations to invite members — who are comfortable doing so — to engage in in-person events with everyone wearing masks and adhering to public health guidelines,” Amanda Thayer, spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Teen Vogue in a statement. “Our members are engaging in these actions to share the message that no nomination should advance or be voted on until after Inauguration Day. With voting already underway in most states, there should be no question that it should be left up to the American people to decide who gets to nominate the next Supreme Court justice.”
Protesters have already found creative ways to get their voices heard. On Monday, small groups of protesters from the Center for Popular Democracy Action (CPD) and Housing Works blocked entrances around Hart, chanting, “Let the people decide!” They were arrested by Capitol Police.
It was a flashback to two years ago, when many people from CPD and other groups executed daily actions around Capitol Hill before getting arrested.