Virus outbreaks stoke tensions in some state capitols

By David A. Lieb - Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — After only their first few weeks of work, tensions already are high among lawmakers meeting in-person at some state capitols — not because of testy debates over taxes, guns or abortion, but because of a disregard for coronavirus precautions.

Ohio Sen. Cecil Thomas, a Democrat, walked out of a committee hearing Wednesday because many members of the public weren’t wearing masks. In Ohio’s Republican-controlled House on Wednesday, GOP lawmakers — many without masks —rejected Democratic motions to require statehouse staff to wear masks and to allow virtual testimony on bills, including by lawmakers.

In Georgia, a Republican lawmaker recently was booted from the House floor for refusing to get tested for the coronavirus. In Iowa, a Democratic House member boldly violated a no-jeans rule to protest the chamber’s lack of a mask rule.

And in Missouri, numerous lawmakers and staff — some fearing for their health after a COVID-19 outbreak in the Capitol — scrambled to get vaccinated at a pop-up clinic before legislative leaders warned that the shots weren’t actually meant for them. GOP Gov. Mike Parson denounced the lawmakers as line-jumpers.

House Democratic leader Crystal Quade, who got the shot, blamed the lax policies of the Republican-led Legislature for fostering angst.

Lawmakers are “coming every week to a building that doesn’t have precautions, where people aren’t wearing masks, where people are getting a positive test left and right,” Quade said.

“We are essentially a super-spreader just waiting to happen,” she said.

Since the start of this year, more than 50 state lawmakers in roughly one-third of the states already have fallen ill with the virus, according to an Associated Press tally. More than 350 state legislators have gotten COVID-19 since the pandemic began, including seven who died after contracting it. Republican lawmakers have had a disproportionate share of the cases, according to the AP’s data.

The U.S. Capitol also experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases — and tensions — after some Republican lawmakers refused to wear masks while sheltering with others during the Jan. 6 siege by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

The Missouri Capitol has had one of the largest outbreaks so far this year, with at least 10 cases among lawmakers. That number might be higher, but it’s hard to know because some lawmakers have refused to say whether they contracted the virus and aren’t required to tell legislative administrators.

Missouri’s legislature has no mask requirement, no formal contact tracing and no ability for lawmakers to vote remotely. Social distancing also is difficult, especially in the 163-member House chamber where desks are packed tightly together.

After being in session for barely a week, the Missouri House canceled all work for a full week “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the building.” House Majority Leader Dean Plocher declined to estimate how many were sick, saying lawmakers had a right to privacy.

In Iowa, Democratic Rep. Amy Nielsen tested positive last weekend. She said she likely was infected at the Capitol, where Republican leaders have refused to require people to wear masks or disclose positive cases.

Iowa House rules require men to wear ties and jackets and prohibit jeans, but Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley said he cannot force members to wear masks and is unwilling to make them leave if they don’t. On Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell wore jeans on the House floor to make a point and refused a request to change clothes. Grassley then prevented her from speaking during debate.

“Jeans aren’t hurting anybody, but all the people wandering around without masks on, they are,” Wessel-Kroeschell said Wednesday.

In other states, Republican leaders have run into resistance from their own members while trying to enforce coronavirus precautions.

By David A. Lieb

Associated Press