MT lawmakers spar over session’s Covid response, plan

Can't agree on plan in wake of positive test
Posted at 5:24 PM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 19:39:15-05

HELENA — In the wake of the first Montana legislator announcing he’s tested positive for Covid-19, legislative leaders sparred Friday over plans to manage the virus at the 2021 session – and could not agree on an overall strategy.

Leaders of the Democratic minority said Republicans don’t yet have a plan with specific health protocols for lawmakers or the public at the Capitol during the session, or that details how they will react to infections.

“The fact that we didn’t have a contact tracer in place, the fact that we didn’t have a communication plan in place, that was clear, in place … means we didn’t have a plan,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “I’m hoping that we come up with one today.”

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, a Hamilton Republican who chairs the Legislative Leadership Covid-19 Response Panel, said Abbott was “starting to go down that path” of politicizing the issue, and said all lawmakers want to make sure the Capitol is safe.

“We’re all here for a common cause,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s about coming together and finding common ground for the people of Montana, for our legislators and for our staff. So I just want to keep us on that track, as I’m sure you do, too.”

The eight-member panel, meeting Friday for its first time, ended without a agreeing to a plan – other than to affirm steps outlined by GOP leadership before the session began this week. Republicans hold a 6-2 majority on the panel.

They also agreed to discuss possible plans over the weekend and meet again next Tuesday. The session began last Monday.

The steps outlined by GOP leaders include recommendations for lawmakers and the public to wear masks inside the Capitol during the session, requirements that lawmakers wear masks in staff work areas, and requirements that any lawmaker who tests positive notify leadership immediately.

Despite the recommendations, many Republican lawmakers have not been wearing masks at the Capitol, while Democratic legislators are.

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said those steps are not a plan devised or agreed to by both parties – and that more definitive action is needed, to keep legislators, its staff and the public safe.

Cohenour said committee meetings in small rooms on the fourth floor should be moved to larger quarters, and that surveillance testing of members should occur.

She also said she’s seen large groups of people gathered outside committee rooms, in the hallways, many of them without wearing masks.

“We’ve talked about this building being a petri dish,” Cohenour said. “We should do as much as we can to make sure this building, which is a workplace, is as safe as possible.”

Friday’s meeting came about 12 hours after lawmakers were notified that Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, had tested positive for Covid-19. He is asymptomatic and believes he contracted the virus before he arrived at the Capitol, and has agreed to work remotely.

Bedey is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which has met a few times this week.

Bedey notified GOP leadership, which said Friday it notified others who’d been in close contact with Bedey and asked them to quarantine and work outside the building. Bedey also notified health-care officials and his providers, who may do some tracing activities as well, leaders said.

Abbott said Thursday night it was “deeply frustrating” that a legislator tested positive before the Legislature established procedures to deal with an outbreak.

“But because no plan in place, it was difficult for me to communicate to my members what they should expect,” she said Friday. “We need a plan here that requires certain things of members that we can hold people accountable to. … We’re on Day 5, with no protocols in place.”

Abbott said she’d like to have standard health rules for all committee meetings, an equitable sign-up for testimony submitted to those committees, more remote participation and a standard for when members will be barred from participating in person.