HELENA, Mont. – As lawmakers around the U.S. convene this winter to deal with the crisis created by the pandemic, statehouses themselves could prove to be hothouses for infection.
Many legislatures will start the year meeting remotely, but some Republican-controlled statehouses, from Montana to Pennsylvania, plan to hold at least part of their sessions in person, without requiring masks. Public health officials say that move endangers the safety of other lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, the public and the journalists responsible for holding politicians accountable.
The risk is more than mere speculation: An ongoing tally by The Associated Press finds that more than 250 state lawmakers across the country have contracted COVID-19, and at least seven have died.
The Montana Legislature convened Monday without masking rules. The Republican majority shot down recent Democratic requests to hold the session remotely or delay it until vaccines are more widely available. Failing that, Democrats asked for requirements on masks and virus testing, which were also rejected.
Democratic lawmakers wore masks as they were sworn in. Few Republicans did the same.
“If the session is held without public health precautions, it is highly likely that the virus will spread in that environment, and it’s highly likely that we’ll see serious illness and, God forbid, deaths come from that,” said Drenda Niemann, the health officer in Lewis and Clark County, which includes the state capital of Helena.
Rather than address COVID-19 guidelines ahead of the session, Republicans decided to address them after lawmakers convene by creating a panel that will meet regularly to consider updating policies. The Senate president pro tem, Republican Jason Ellsworth, said the panel “allows us to be more fluid with the situation" and "allows for our personal freedoms and our responsibilities.”
The divergent approaches to the virus — with Republican lawmakers mostly rejecting mask mandates and lockdown measures, and Democrats urging a more cautious approach — mirrors that of Americans generally. That contrast was reflected over the holidays, when millions of people hit the roads and airports despite pleas from health officials to avoid travel and family gatherings to help contain the virus, which has claimed more than 350,000 American lives.