Legislators pay price for disregarding COVID-19 precautions at Capitol

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Lawmakers during the legislative session at the Capitol in Jackson on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

As a Republican House chairman waited outside Speaker Philip Gunn’s office one day in late June, another prominent member walked up and they began an intense, face-to-face conversation literally inches apart with no masks.

Several other Republicans — all without masks — joined the group a few seconds later. A masked reporter waiting near the door said to the members: “You guys aren’t too concerned about the coronavirus.”

One of the members in the face-to-face conversation looked at the other and proclaimed, “Yeah, get away from me.” The other let out a fake cough. Everybody laughed, including the reporter.

The scene is not so funny now that those two legislators are among the at least 30 lawmakers and at least 11 legislative staffers who have tested positive for COVID-19 the past two weeks. Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, are among those who tested positive.

The intent in sharing the anecdote is not to embarrass. There were, no doubt, countless other similar instances in the Mississippi Capitol not witnessed by a reporter as the Legislature was in session during a chaotic June.

But the episode does highlight the cavalier attitude many members of the Legislature took about the coronavirus — particularly the longer the session went.

The Legislature recessed the session in March because of safety concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. When lawmakers returned in May, Gunn and Hosemann implemented strict precautions, including limiting the number of members in the chambers at any one time. Temperature checks were administered as people entered the Capitol.

“When we came back from the recess, the speaker had developed a good plan,” said House Democratic Leader Robert Johnson of Natchez. “But the longer we were in session, the less we adhered to the rules.”

Johnson said he hopes when legislators return to the Capitol in coming days that those original precautions will be re-imposed and one additional restriction will be initiated: a mask mandate.

“We should all understand by now how important wearing a mask is,” Johnson said. “It is a little burdensome, but it is not that much of an inconvenience.”

Some legislators who have gotten sick with the coronavirus wore masks all the time. For instance, Rep. Bo Brown, D-Jackson, who has confirmed he has tested positive, seldom was seen without a mask in the halls of the Capitol. But many who got sick never wore masks.

To be clear, not all Democrats were wearing masks, but most were. And not all Republicans were eschewing the wearing of masks, but many were.

Health experts have reiterated the wearing of a mask protects not so much the mask wearer but those who come in contact with the person wearing the mask. So if everyone wears a mask, everyone will have an added layer of protection.

State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs cited a Centers for Disease Control study where two stylists in a hair salon tested positive for COVID-19, but none of their 130 clients caught the virus presumably because the stylists were wearing masks.

“Pretty strong endorsement of the power of masks,” Dobbs said. “The more data that is available” points to “what a simple, easy, effective intervention it is.”

Both Hosemann and Gunn set good examples wearing masks in public early on. But as the session progressed and intense debate developed over changing the state flag, disbursing $1 billion in federal funds for COVID-19 relief and funding state agencies in the midst of economic uncertainty, many of those safeguards were discarded.

Perhaps the Legislature is a microcosm of the state. Dobbs said the state is having record number of coronavirus cases now because Mississippians have let down their collective guard in terms of battling the pandemic.

“It’s insanely difficult to control a pandemic when people A) think it’s not real, B) find every reason to undermine the reality of it to justify not following the rules,” Dobbs said in a recorded meeting on July 10.

Just as the pandemic is preventing the full reopening of the state, the Legislature’s coronavirus outbreak is delaying lawmakers’ return to the Capitol to address the important issues of funding the Department of Marine Resources and taking up Gov. Tate Reeves’ veto of the kindergarten through 12th grade education budget.

Reeves, who espouses the virtues of wearing a mask even though there are high profile instances of him not doing so, says those entities can survive in the short term without legislative action.

“We believe we are in a situation in which both of those entities can function,” Reeves said. “Is it perfect? No… But we are a position in which we will bring them back at an appropriate time if and when it is safe to do so. I think public health must trump everything else in regards to legislative action.”

Without question, for part of the 2020 legislative session, public health concerns were placed on the backburner.