Lawmakers give themselves good reviews for handling state business during COVID lockdown
Some lawmakers contracted the virus, but no one became seriously ill and the session carried on.
Last week, I asked the spokespersons for all four state legislative caucus leaders if they considered the spring session’s COVID protocols in their respective chambers to be a success. I didn’t think I’d get much in the way of a newsworthy response, but I actually did.
Jaclyn Driscoll was a Missouri Statehouse reporter before she was hired as House Speaker Chris Welch’s spokesperson this spring. Driscoll also covered the Illinois Statehouse before moving to Missouri.
Driscoll said there was no mask mandate in the Republican-controlled Missouri legislature during the pandemic and she was infected.
“Not only did I contract COVID, but a lawmaker ended up on a ventilator,” Driscoll said. “Some lawmakers even actively and publicly shamed others for wearing masks.”
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By contrast, Driscoll said, “it was nice to be surrounded by people who led with science and common sense,” in Illinois. “We did see some people contract the virus, but I think with testing protocols we were able to catch it early and stop any substantial spread. Long story short, I was just grateful to feel safe while doing my job again.”
The goal with the House’s protocols, which relied on a mask mandate, remote hearings, some limited access and strong encouragement to get vaccinated, “was to keep everyone safe while we got important work done for the state,” she said. “We were also able to give journalists access while keeping them safe also, which is crucial to hold our elected officials accountable.”
No outbreaks, but limited public information
The Senate was a different story. The chamber had a strictly enforced saliva testing requirement on top of its mask mandate, it allowed remote floor and committee voting and it shut off access to a large part of the Statehouse to anyone who didn’t have an appointment. Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford knew immediately that she had COVID because of the tests, which were conducted in the Stratton Office Building near the Statehouse. No exceptions were made, no matter who you were.
Senate President Don Harmon’s spokesperson John Patterson labeled the session “a resounding success.” He noted that they started the session in January with an inauguration ceremony “in essentially an empty chamber,” and spent the first few weeks cancelling session days.
“That we were able to return to some semblance of normal shows how successful the protocols were,” Patterson said. The University of Illinois’ Shield saliva test, which produced results in hours, detected the virus before it could be spread. “We had no outbreaks or cancellations thanks to the protocols.” And that, he said, created a work environment where people could be assured that everyone around them had tested negative. “It allowed people to get back to normal and focus on the work.”
Patterson is known for his snark, so the rest of his response was no surprise. He said there is a “potentially lingering side effect” to the session. “There’s anecdotal evidence that the sight of the Stratton Building continues to cause increased saliva production. I’m hoping it will fade with time.”
The Republicans weren’t quite as charitable with their reviews. Here’s House Republican Leader Jim Durkin’s spokesperson Eleni Demertzis: “Prior to Phase 5, health and safety protocols were probably helpful in keeping everyone under the dome safe from COVID-19. Without knowing whether the House Chamber had any active cases or spread, the assessment of the success rate for these safety measures is currently under review.”
Indeed, the public was never given any regular updates on who or how many people might have been infected during the session, although we were told when Speaker Welch’s Chief of Staff Jessica Basham tested positive. But there’s no evidence yet to suggest that anyone became severely ill from working at the Statehouse or that any widespread outbreaks occurred in the House.
Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie’s spokesperson Whitney Barnes: “We are thankful that there were no outbreaks during spring session. However, we firmly believe that the people of Illinois could have been given a more open and transparent legislative process had we simply followed CDC guidelines — especially in the final month of session.”
It’s a good point. For whatever reason, neither chamber made any attempt to allow more freedom or access for people who did the responsible thing by being fully vaccinated. The universalized restrictions were a constant source of irritation during the last seven weeks of session for those of us who had gotten our shots.
But, what’s done is done, I suppose. Hopefully, we’ll never have to do this ever again.
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Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.