Legislature’s top leaders test positive for coronavirus

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, left, and House speaker Philip Gunn speak to media concerning the legislative session and the coronavirus Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

The Legislature’s two presiding officers, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, 73, in the Senate and House Speaker Philip Gunn, 57, are at home quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19.

They are among a growing number of legislators, particularly in the House, and legislative staff who have tested positive in recent days.

The cases come after a hectic and historic past 10 days of the 2020 session as legislators voted to remove the state flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem as part of its design, distribute about $1 billion in federal funds to deal with the coronavirus, and  pass a budget for the new fiscal year.

Throughout that time period, recommended safety precautions to combat COVID-19, like wearing masks and social distancing, were to a large extent ignored by most legislators, though some did wear masks.

“It is the way we have been doing things in our country,” said Jarvis Dortch, who served Jackson as a Democrat in the House until this past Thursday when he stepped down to become executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. “We get tired of the safety precautions and it becomes business as usual.”

While not all of the members who contracted the virus have been made public, Dortch said he could count as many as 12 House members whom he had heard tested positive for the virus. Others said the numbers are higher. On Tuesday afternoon, state Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said eight legislators had tested positive, though, many others were waiting on test results.

When the session resumed in May after taking a recess in March because of concerns over the coronavirus, multiple safety precautions were put in place. The number of people allowed in the House and Senate chambers where the members’ desks are only a few feet apart, were limited. Most everyone, though not all, were wearing masks.

In late March, a Capitol Police officer reportedly tested positive for coronavirus while the Legislature was on hiatus, and in June legislative leaders also confirmed that an employee who occasionally works at the state Capitol tested positive as well.

Throughout the process, everyone has had to undergo a temperature check when entering the Capitol, though that was about the only safety precaution that was not eschewed.

As the historic debate to change the flag intensified, unusual focus was placed on the House Rules Committee since that is the committee where the flag legislation originated. Often, Rules Committee meetings, held in a small room, were crowded, near elbow to elbow. Gunn serves on this committee as do other members who reports indicate have tested positive.

Ironically, though, the first member to announce he was positive for COVID-19 was Rep. Bo Brown, D-Jackson, who was never seen not wearing a mask and often was wearing gloves.

“He even left his mask on to ask questions,” said Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens. “He might have gotten it away from the Capitol.”

Dortch said he was glad Brown was wearing a mask. He said the people sitting near Brown in the House chamber have all been tested and none of them thus far have tested positive. Dortch said research indicates a mask worn by a person with the virus can provide a certain amount of protection for people the person with the illness comes in contact.

Senate Pro Tem Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said Tuesday he was awaiting his test results. Should the Legislature be forced to come back into session before Hosemann recovers, Kirby would preside. If he was sick, Kirby said any senator could preside, though, it might fall to the Senate Rules Committee Vice Chair Walter Michel, a Madison County Republican. Kirby is Rules chair.

In the House, Pro-Tem Jason White, R-West, confirmed he had symptoms and was expecting to receive a positive test.

He said Gunn, who said Sunday he was not exhibiting many symptoms, remained in charge, but it is not clear who would preside if both he and the speaker were quarantined. Perhaps that would fall to Rules Chair Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn.

The Legislature had planned to come back late this week to try to pass a budget for the Department of Marine Resources for the new fiscal year that began on July 1. Since the new budget year began, the Gulf Coast agency had been performing only basic services.

DMR was the only agency left unfunded when the Legislature adjourned last week.

On Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves, who was with both Gunn and Hosemann last week when he signed into law a bill retiring the state flag, announced, he had tested negatively.