After serving 17 terms as the representative for Georgia's 5th Congressional District, John Robert Lewis didn't leave many people on Capitol Hill without a story to tell about him. Representative Lewis was regarded as both an influential politician and prominent civil rights leader.
After his passing, it became clear that arrangements would be necessary for Americans of all generations to honor Lewis. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, hard-working Architect of the Capitol (AOC) teams prepared for visitors to say their farewells.
A small funeral was held indoors for invited guests with social distancing practices in place. "We are used to having almost 1,000 people in the room for an event like this," said Raynell Bennett, Capitol Building director of planning, evaluation and operations. Attendance for this event was less than 20 percent of the normal occupancy due to social distancing. Guests and congressional staff are invited to the Rotunda for funerals and other ceremonial events. Among the invited guests for Lewis' funeral were Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Preparations were also made for Lewis' two-day lying in state, which required a cross-jurisdictional effort; it was no small feat. After much deliberation, AOC leaders with the help of the Speaker's Office, House and Senate Sergeant at Arms and U.S. Capitol Police decided that the casket would be placed on the East Front Portico. The Capitol Building's Carpentry Shop built a special platform to accommodate the casket that would be both visually appropriate and secure.
Visitors from across the United States lined up 6 feet apart on East Capitol and First Streets to pay tribute to Lewis' life. "We knew even in the midst of the pandemic that there would be a line of people who wanted to pay their respects," said U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Chief Executive Officer Beth Plemmons.
Social distancing and safety were the utmost priority for all in attendance. Capitol Grounds and Arboretum ran water lines for potable drinking water. "We were able to provide water for visitors in coordination and consultation with the Office of Attending Physician and the Office of Security Programs," said James Kaufmann, Capitol Grounds and Arboretum director. The American Red Cross was also on site to assist with any medical needs due to the high temperatures.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way the AOC operates on a day-to-day basis and Lewis' lying in state and public viewing were no different. Despite the challenges of hot weather and social distancing, AOC teams adjusted to this new normal and successfully served this unprecedented event.
What have AOC employees learned from this experience? It's changed the way we think — prioritizing tasks, increasing efficiency and enforcing safe practices to carry out the mission of the AOC, each and every day.