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Legislatures across country back off pandemic protocols

The Idaho State Capitol in Boise photographed on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The Idaho State Capitol in Boise photographed on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Partisan fissures evident in statehouses as lawmakers enter third year of coronavirus

As Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney walked the halls of the Kansas Statehouse on opening day of the legislative session this month, she was taken aback by what she saw.

In the hallways, where “people are chatting and hugging and all that stuff, there were probably less than half of the people wearing masks … You definitely wouldn’t have known that we were in a surge, that outside the world of the Capitol there was a crisis going on in our health care system,” said Bacani McKenney, a family physician from Fredonia, Kansas, serving as the volunteer doctor in the Statehouse for the first two days of the new session.

At that moment, Kansas, like most of the country, was seeing a sharp spike in coronavirus cases, driven by the new omicron variant. New cases in the first week of January jumped to a seven-day average of more than 6,500 per day in the state, up from a summer low of only around 100 cases per day.

Across the nation, legislatures and their committees are gathering for the annual ritual of the legislative session, which in most states takes up the early months of the year. Unlike recent years, however, when masks and social distancing were common, if not the explicit rule, in many states you’d hardly know that we were entering the third year of a pandemic.

  • In Idaho, where cases are spiking and the population is among the least vaccinated in the nation, Gov. Brad Little delivered the annual State of the State address in-person to a joint session of the Legislature this month. The vast majority of the state’s 105 legislators did not wear masks or maintain social distance. At least four of them have tested positive since the session began. In 2021, Little delivered the speech remotely due to COVID-19 concerns, and legislators reconfigured many of the committee hearing rooms to reduce seating capacity and spread seats out.
  • In Nebraska, most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. Plastic barriers, used last year to separate senators on the legislative floor, have been removed. The Republican-controlled unicameral Legislature has never required state senators to wear masks. About a dozen of the 49 senators are wearing masks voluntarily this year, fewer than in 2020 and 2021. State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, Speaker of the Legislature, said most restrictions were imposed before vaccines became available. Now, he said, the Legislature is “returning to normal.”
  • In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds began the legislative session with a wide-ranging, 45-minute Condition of the State speech. Reynolds mentioned “the pandemic” three times, in passing. She did not use the word COVID, nor did she advocate for vaccinations, mitigation measures or any other changes in state COVID policy. Legislators crowded the Iowa House chamber to watch Reynolds’ address on Jan. 11. Most Democrats wore face coverings, either cloth masks or N-95s, while the majority of Republicans chose not to wear one.

Even in states where COVID-19 protections do remain in place, the issue has exposed a sharp partisan divide and provoked unrest among legislators.
So what’s going on?

The divergent and often contentious approaches to statehouse coronavirus rules are a small but largely predictable pattern of sectarianism that has emerged in many parts of American life, says Michael Bugeja, a professor at Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication and a columnist at the Iowa Capital Dispatch and other media outlets. It has manifested itself in fights over voting rights, school curricula, library books, even the very facts of public political events.

“We are now in an era where one side hates the other side more than they love their own side, and that defines sectarianism … everything has become politicized,” he said.

Bugeja was careful not to take sides in the legislative disputes, but observed that the very act of wearing or not wearing a mask has become a performative display to demonstrate which team one aligns with — a prerequisite of sectarianism.

The statehouse battle is “one small symptom of a very large divide that has been introduced by technology, by social media, by the lack of news, news taken out of context, by Twitter, by screen time, by politicians, even by our own families,” he said.

Divide is clear in many statehouses

In Oregon, where legislators are meeting in person but masks are required for everyone, Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney told Sen. Dallas Heard, the chair of the Oregon Republican Party, that he was barred from returning to the Capitol until he wore a mask.

“Assuming the (statewide) mask mandate still exists, we will have to move against individuals who don’t have a mask and have them expelled from the floor,” Courtney said in December. “I want no part of that, I don’t like it, but that’s the situation we’re in.”

In Virginia, the Republican caucus in the House of Delegates celebrated their return to control of the chamber this month by pointedly showing up unmasked and voting as a bloc to overturn most pandemic rules instituted by the previous Democratic leadership.

“There’s less restrictions now, according to the Republican plan, to get on the floor of the General Assembly than there are to walk into most coffee shops,” outgoing Democratic Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn told the Virginia Mercury. “It’s shocking.”

In New Jersey, where dominant Democrats are requiring proof of vaccination for everyone entering the Capitol, including legislators, a group of Republican lawmakers attempted to push past guardsposted to check the status of those entering during a session in December.

“First it’s us, then it’s you. We’re going to stand strong, stand together, and we’re going to fight this thing,” said then-Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Holmdel) to a group of anti-vaccine protestors afterward.

Arizona this year decided to do away with virtually all of the strict precautions that were in place in the 2021 session. Neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate will require masks. Plastic shields that had been constructed around lawmakers’ desks have been dismantled, and there will be no social distancing requirements.

“Our goal is business as usual, with a few additions,” said Kim Quintero, a spokeswoman for Senate President Karen Fann and the Senate Republican caucus.

It wasn’t always like this.

Early action on COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic hit the U.S. hard in March and April of 2020, just as many legislatures were in the middle or toward the end of their annual sessions.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 36 legislatures enacted emergency changes in 2020, including limiting access to the capitol and allowing for remote voting and remote participation by the public in hearings. In 2021, at least 30 legislatures continued those measures.

The legislative season in 2022 is too young for a clear picture of how widespread the retreat from such emergency measures may be, but it’s clear that the partisan temperature is much higher this year than in either previous pandemic year.

“We have in effect pulled into two different camps with two different views of reality. … In many ways, the data around vaccines, masks and all these things is kind of bearing out as a proxy for the role of government,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told the Associated Press this month.

Effects of changing rules

It’s not clear how many legislators, staff or visitors may have contracted coronavirus from legislative activities in recent years, but the virus has made its presence known among elected officials.

In Idaho, just days after the 2022 session opened, Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, learned they had tested positive and left the Idaho Capitol, according to a statement by the legislature’s Democratic caucuses. Both wore masks during the past three days since the session began. Days later, two Republican legislators tested positive, including Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

In 2021, the Idaho legislature adjourned for about two weeks after at least 20 legislators and staff contracted COVID-19, but there does not appear to be a move to repeat that action in 2022.

In the Michigan Legislature, which does not require masks or vaccines for lawmakers, the spiking COVID cases led Republican House speaker Jason Wentworth to announce a one week pause in floor votes, though he allowed other business, including committee hearings to proceed.

“Additionally, all other state services from the Capitol will still be available, including representatives and staff being available to answer questions, take feedback and help constituents with any problems they have in state government,” he said in a news release. “That is a priority, and it will not be interrupted.”

COVID-19 hit home early in Michigan when state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), 44, died from suspected COVID-19 complications in March 2020. Since then, a number of state lawmakers have tested positive, including most recently Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who tested positive for COVID-19 this month.

But it has been difficult to know exactly how many lawmakers have contracted the virus in Michigan because, like Idaho, it is not mandated that they get tested or report their results.

“I think it’s unfortunate … that our legislators don’t feel the need to disclose when they have COVID,” said State Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt). “But without that knowledge and without that trust, I think we really need a mandate.”

Some states are still making efforts to adjust for the ongoing pandemic, exacerbated by the sharp spike in cases driven by the new omicron variant.

In New Hampshire, Republican leaders defeated Democratic efforts to hold the annual session remotely, but they did agree to move the 400-member House of Representatives to a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Manchester, 25 minutes south of the state’s capital.

New Hampshire House Republicans argue that the 30,000-square-foot venue provides more spacing opportunities for lawmakers than the traditional Representative’s Hall, where lawmakers sit shoulder to shoulder. House Democrats, meanwhile,have urged Republican leadership to allow for remote participation, pointing to some representatives who are immunocompromised and have been unable to participate in floor votes since the pandemic began.

After a two-day session this month, two House memberstested positive for COVID-19, the House Speaker’s Office announced in an email Jan. 9.

The state’s 24-member Senate, meanwhile, is meeting in-person in the abandoned Representatives Hall, allowing for more space.

Although both chambers of the Georgia Legislature are in Republican hands, leaders are split over COVID-19 protocols. While the Senate has dropped most precautions, House Speaker David Ralston has been firm about requiring masks for everyone not speaking into a microphone.

In a floor speech last year,Ralston described losing friends and constituents to the virus. The Blue Ridge Republican provided reminders to members who let their masks slip during the fall special redistricting session. Before that, he had Buford Republican Rep. David Clarkescorted from the House chamber after Clark refused to be tested.

Atlanta Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan noted, however, that even some of her Republican colleagues are wearing masks, despite the lifting of the requirement. “You’ll notice that with respect to the Republican members of the Senate that have health care backgrounds, they’re wearing them. So it shouldn’t be partisan,” she said. “Obviously, we can see that by what the Speaker of the House has done, and for what it’s worth, right now, our hospital facilities are overburdened, to say the least.”

In Maine, Democrats decided to continue holding committee hearings virtually this year, despite objections from the minority Republicans. Republican leaders argued that older constituents with limited access to computers have been excluded from participating in committee hearings, while Democrats said they have heard the opposite from their working constituents, who favor the remote meetings because they cannot make the trip to the State House.

“Why are we more special than the person who served us at the restaurants we ate at last or the person who last cut our hair or the person who bagged our groceries? We are not,” Maine Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake said before the Senate vote on Jan. 5, according to the Portland Press Herald.

New Mexico’s Legislature had said that it would require proof of vaccination to enter the state capitol, known as the Roundhouse. With just days before the session, House leaders said committee hearings would be conducted remotely. Many members had expressed concern about meeting in person in the face of the pandemic, which has hit New Mexico hard, particularly in tribal communities.

“In the House specifically we have a very young legislature who have young children who are at home … I’m not going to lie — I’m kind of freaked out,” State Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) told Source New Mexico before the virtual committee plan was announced. “I have a couple of elder parents who I see pretty often. I really wouldn’t want to put them at risk.”

Back in Kansas, Dr. Bacani McKenney sounded discouraged by her brief experience in the Legislature, She told the Kansas Reflector that a number of people approached her in the Statehouse clinic to question her assertions that vaccines are safe and effective. One asked her about ivermectin, a drug widely touted by vaccine opponents but not approved as a COVID cure, and shifting guidance from health officials, she said.

“I hope and pray that all the people in that Capitol, the visitors and people testifying, I hope that everybody is OK,” Bacani McKenney said in the first days of the session. “But I foresee in the next two weeks that we’re just going to see the result of these first few days.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.