Legislatures across the country back off pandemic protocols

By: and - January 25, 2022 3:00 am
Sens. Tom Briese and John Cavanaugh

Sens. Tom Briese, left, and John Cavanaugh chat on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature at the Nebraska Capitol Building on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

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 around 100 cases per day.

Across the nation, as legislatures began gathering for their annual legislative sessions. Unlike the last two years, however, when masks and social distancing were common, if not the explicit rule, in many states you’d hardly know the pandemic was entering its third year. 

At the Nebraska Legislature, 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 during the second week of the session, the Legislature is “returning to normal.”

“We still have some restrictions in place, including limits on who can be on the floor (of the Legislature),” Hilgers said.

Only five members of the news media can be on the floor at a time, for example, and staff members are also limited. Visitors remain barred from sitting in the back of the chambers.

But the public can again watch proceedings from the balcony; sergeants-at-arms can pass lobbyists’ notes to lawmakers; and “Doctors of the Day” and ministers who say a daily prayer may enter the chamber. 

Voluntary COVID-19 testing continues for senators and staff, with the first round of weekly tests on Thursday Jan. 13. But temperature-testing has been discontinued. 

Predictable pattern

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 is she an 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.

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. 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.

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, Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney barred Sen. Dallas Heard, the chair of the Oregon Republican Party, 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 the return to control of the chamber this month by showing up unmasked and voting as a bloc to overturn most pandemic rules instituted by the previous Democratic leadership.

In New Jersey, where dominant Democrats are requiring proof of vaccination for everyone entering the Capitol, a group of Republican lawmakers attempted to push past guards posted 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,” then-Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Holmdel, told a group of anti-vaccine protesters afterward.

Early action on 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 this year’s session opened, Rep. John Gannon and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, both Democrats representing Boise, learned they had tested positive and left the Idaho Capitol, according to a statement by the legislature’s Democratic caucuses. 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.

... the data around vaccines, masks and all these things is kind of bearing out as a proxy for the role of government.

– George Benjamin, executive director, American Public Health Association

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.

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.

Some states are still making efforts to adjust for the ongoing pandemic, exacerbated by the sharp spike in cases driven by the 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 Representatives 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 members tested 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 Representatives Hall, allowing for more space.

New Mexico’s legislature had said that it would require proof of vaccination to enter the state capitol, and House leaders decided committee hearings will 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 Georgia, although both legislative chambers are in Republican hands, leaders are split over COVID-19 protocols. While the Senate has dropped most precautions, House Speaker David Ralston has required 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 Clark escorted 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. 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. 

Note: Reporters and editors from across the States Newsroom network contributed to this report.

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Sean Scully
Sean Scully

A Virginia native, Sean Scully has been in journalism for more than 30 years in a variety of roles and locations. He currently is a national editor at the nonprofit States Newsroom.

Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.