Nearly 200 lawmakers across country have tested positive for coronavirus and four have died as GOP flouts rules
Many Republican lawmakers in states where coronavirus increased cases and hospitalizations don’t just reject statewide mask warrants. They also resist the rules that oblige them in their own capital.
Efforts to compel lawmakers and staff to wear masks have received a warm welcome, even in states that have seen outbreaks of the virus or where Republican governors have issued statewide warrants. It echoes a partisan divide nationwide over a simple step that health experts say helps protect others.
“We are meant to be models for our constituents and for our residents of our state,” said Arkansas State Senator Stephanie Flowers, a Democrat in the majority Republican legislature who proposed a rule requiring senators to wear a mask or risk per diem. “You have the governor asking everyone to wear a mask and social distancing. It’s not like I’m asking for something that no one has heard of.”
Many legislatures are still planning and drafting rules for their 2021 legislative sessions, while four chambers have approved rules requiring masks for this year’s sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Nearly 200 lawmakers across the country have tested positive for the virus and four have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press. After at least four dozen Mississippi lawmakers tested positive in the largest outbreak of a legislature, where masks were encouraged but not mandatory for lawmakers.
The Missouri legislature postponed a special session devoted to relief from the virus after a COVID-19 outbreak among lawmakers, and a Tennessee lawmaker said she could not spend Thanksgiving with her mother after attending a hearing where lawmakers did not wear masks.
Health experts warn the public is drawing inspiration from elected officials at a time when elected officials try to restrict or discourage indoor gatherings that are fueling a rapid increase in cases.
“We know it works, but if political leaders don’t stand behind their public health officials and say we need to do it, a significant portion of the public may not follow,” said Dr Jeffrey Levi, professor of health policy to George. University of Washington.
Legislatures have taken steps to try to curb the virus, with some allowing remote voting and others meeting in larger venues to allow more spacing. The Arkansas home, for example, met in a basketball arena for two sessions last spring, but will return to the Capitol next year.
Twelve Arkansas lawmakers have tested positive for the virus over the past month, the second-largest known outbreak in a state legislature.
The latest outbreak began after lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill for budget hearings last month. The budget committee had passed a mask rule that did not require lawmakers to wear them when speaking into a microphone, drinking, or when they were at least six feet from other people.
Flowers suffers from diabetes, which puts her at a higher risk of complications from the virus. She withdrew her proposal for a tougher rule in the Senate to make changes based on concerns raised about the measure and plans to bring back a revamped version when lawmakers meet in January. House Speaker Matthew Shepherd has said he expects the House to adopt a version similar to the Joint Budget Committee rule.
Republican Senator Trent Garner called Flowers’ proposal and its sanctions “draconian” and said the legislature should be held on par with the state’s mask mandate, GOP Governor Asa Hutchinson signed on more early this year.
“We don’t need to create a rule of ‘tell each other’ about public safety,” Garner said.
Tennessee Democratic State Representative Gloria Johnson tweeted Tuesday that she would no longer have Thanksgiving dinner with her mother after attending a legislative meeting with Republican members who did not wear masks.
“We’re not having a big family Thanksgiving dinner (with) mom because of COVID, but I was going to eat with her remotely,” Johnson wrote, adding that being near her legislative colleague for the past two days henceforth would mean she “will leave her food on the steps”.
Oklahoma House and Senate leaders have announced plans to impose a mask warrant on employees who work inside the Capitol after two lawmakers tested positive last week. But legislative leaders have recognized that lawmakers cannot be forced to wear masks.
An outbreak among Missouri state senators that postponed a special session focused on federal coronavirus aid also failed to force lawmakers to wear masks. Republican senators were pictured wearing no masks during a caucus retreat with GOP Governor Mike Parsons.
“Senators have been encouraged to wear masks and many have done so when moving in public spaces,” said Senate Speaker Pro Tem Dave Schatz. “It is, however, ultimately up to each individual to make that decision.”
The fight between lawmakers in some states goes beyond the rules of the mask to determine whether information is withheld about outbreaks in their capitals. In Minnesota last week, Democrats in the state Senate demanded that the House Majority Leader resign from his leadership post after he and other Senate Republicans failed to notify fellow Democrats and others from a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the ranks of the GOP.
The Pennsylvania House has implemented a mask rule for its members since June, but around 20 of the House’s most conservative Republicans have consistently ignored the mandate and their party leaders have failed to implement it. A Democratic lawmaker tweeted on Friday that she had filed a complaint with the state’s health department for unsafe working conditions over the matter.
Ohio Republicans have also rejected efforts to require lawmakers to wear masks at the Statehouse, and a statewide mask warrant issued by GOP Governor Mike DeWine did not applied either.
The debate in state capitals mirrors that of Washington lawmakers. Masks are mandatory in the United States House, but not in the United States Senate. Senators from both parties regularly take off their masks to speak in the Senate, a practice that has been rejected by Democrats.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, interrupted a speech Monday afternoon to ask Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, to don his mask as he presided over the Senate, noting that he could expose personnel nearby.
“I don’t wear a mask when I speak, like most senators,” Sullivan replied, saying he would put on the mask but “I don’t need your instructions”.