‘It sucks’: Coronavirus outbreak at Capitol leaves state government in limbo

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann during the legislative session at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, May 28, 2020.

When COVID-19 kicked into full force, state Rep. Trey Lamar said the aches “felt like somebody took a nine-iron to my back.”

Lamar is among dozens of Mississippi legislators and staff infected in a coronavirus outbreak at the state Capitol as lawmakers ended, for now, their 2020 legislative session. Many lawmakers by the end of the session on July 1 were eschewing face masks and social distancing, and the Capitol at times was packed with people as lawmakers voted to retire the state flag with its divisive Confederate emblem.

With unfinished business, including dealing with the governor’s veto of the state public education budget, the legislative outbreak has state government in limbo. The Capitol is shut down, and health officials warn lawmakers shouldn’t gather again for at least a couple of weeks.

Both Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, have tested positive. A spokesperson for the Republican speaker, who announced his test results on July 5, said earlier this week that Gunn is “doing great.” He is slated to give online interviews later this week in his capacity as the chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization that promotes conservative ideas and legislation.

A spokesperson for Hosemann said: “There has been little change (in his condition), and the lieutenant governor remains in quarantine and working from home.” Hosemann confirmed his positive test on July 7.

The state health officer on Tuesday said 41 people — staff and legislators — have tested positive so far, including 30 legislators. Dobbs said there have been two hospitalizations associated with the Capitol outbreak.

Lamar said he’s heard even higher numbers of potential cases.

Lamar, the 39-year-old House Ways and Means chairman from Senatobia, was succinct in how he felt starting the evening of July 4, when he first fell ill.

“It sucks,” Lamar said on Tuesday. “It’s definitely nothing to take lightly.

“On the night of July 4, I started feeling bad, and had two to three days of flu-like symptoms – aches, fever, chills … then I started having a dry cough, where I couldn’t catch my breath … I lost my sense of smell and taste.”

Lamar said he began feeling better starting Sunday afternoon, and by Tuesday was definitely on the mend. He said he wasn’t hospitalized – although he knows of at least one lawmaker who has been – and none of his family has come down with it.

“They put me in a guest bedroom and locked me in isolation,” Lamar said.

As lawmakers and legislative staff recover, additional work looms. The Legislature left Jackson without passing a budget for the Department of Marine Resources because of a power struggle over spending federal Gulf Restoration funds. And the governor vetoed the bulk of the state’s public education budget after lawmakers failed to specifically fund a bonus system for top performing teachers he supports.

Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday said the executive branch has been able to fund both agencies in the meantime. He said the situation is “fluid,” and he is reluctant to call lawmakers back into special session to deal with the issues until the health threat is minimized.

“Public health must trump everything else,” Reeves said. “… Is it an ideal situation? No. Is it perfect? No. Should the Legislature have left without finishing these things? No. I am confident that working together we can find a solution.”

Reeves added: “I am not going to put them in harm’s way.”