Many Republican lawmakers in states where coronavirus cases and hospital stays have increased are not just rejecting statewide mask mandates. They also defy rules that they prescribe in their own capitals.
Efforts to force lawmakers and staff to wear masks have also been well received in state houses where the virus has broken out or where Republican governors have given statewide mandates. It reflects a nationwide partisan difference about a simple move that health experts say has been shown to help keep others safe.
“We’re supposed to model for our constituents and for our state residents,” said Arkansas Senator Stephanie Flowers, a Democrat in Republican majority legislation who proposed a rule that Senators must wear a mask or risk losing their daily rates. “The governor asked everyone to wear a mask and social distance. It’s not like I’m asking for something that no one has heard of.”
Many lawmakers are still planning and drafting rules for their legislative sessions in 2021, while four chambers approved rules mandating masks for sessions that year, according to the National Conference of Legislative Bodies.
Nationwide, nearly 200 lawmakers have tested positive for the virus and four have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to figures from The Associated Press. After at least four dozen Mississippi lawmakers, the largest outbreak was positively assessed in a legislature that promoted masks but didn’t require lawmakers.
Missouri’s legislature postponed a special session on virus relief following a COVID-19 outbreak among lawmakers, and a Tennessee lawmaker said she couldn’t spend Thanksgiving with her mother after attending a hearing where lawmakers were not wearing masks .
Health professionals warn the public not to turn to elected officials if those officials attempt to restrict or discourage indoor gatherings, leading to a rapid rise in cases.
“We know it works, but unless the political leaders stand behind their public health officials and say we have to do this, a significant segment of the public may not be following,” said Dr. Jeffrey Levi, Professor of Health Policy at George Washington University.
Legislation has taken steps to contain the virus. Some allow remote voting, while others meet in larger locations to create more distance. Arkansas’ House, for example, met for two sessions in a basketball arena last spring but will return to the Capitol next year.
Twelve Arkansas lawmakers tested positive for the virus last month, the second largest known outbreak in any state legislature.
The most recent outbreak began after lawmakers gathered at the Capitol for budget hearings last month. The budget committee had passed a mask rule that stipulated that lawmakers did not have to wear them when speaking into a microphone, drinking, or when being at least three feet away from other people.
Flowers has diabetes, which puts her at greater risk of complications from the virus. It withdrew its proposal for stricter Senate regulation to make changes based on concerns about the measure and plans to bring back a revised version when the legislature meets in January. House spokesman Matthew Shepherd said he expected this Chamber to adopt a version that was similar to the Joint Committee on Budgets rule.
Republican Senator Trent Garner called Flowers’ proposal and punishments “draconian” and said legislation should be kept to the same standard as the nationwide mask mandate GOP Governor Asa Hutchinson signed earlier this year.
“We don’t have to create a ‘tell-on-each-other’ rule when it comes to public safety,” said Garner.
Tennessee Democratic MP Gloria Johnson tweeted Tuesday that she would no longer have Thanksgiving dinner with her mother after attending a legislative meeting with Republican members who were not wearing masks.
“We don’t have a big family Thanksgiving dinner (with) mom because of COVID, but I wanted to eat with her some distance away,” wrote Johnson, adding that it will now mean the last two days with her co-legislator to be She will “leave her food on the steps”.
Oklahoma House and Senate leaders announced plans to impose mask mandates on employees who work in the Capitol after two lawmakers tested positive last week. However, lawmakers recognized that individual lawmakers could not be forced to wear masks.
An outbreak among Missouri state senators that postponed a special session focusing on federal coronavirus aid hasn’t resulted in lawmakers having to wear masks there either. Republican Senators were photographed without a mask during a caucus retreat with GOP Governor Mike Parsons.
“Senators were encouraged to wear masks and many did so as they moved through public spaces,” said Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz. “Ultimately, however, it is up to each individual to make this decision.”
The battle among lawmakers in some states goes beyond mask rules and whether or not information about outbreaks is withheld in their capitals. In Minnesota, Senate Democrats last week called for the Chamber’s majority leader to resign from his leadership post after he and other Senate Republicans failed to inform their Democratic counterparts and others of a possible COVID-19 outbreak within the GOP.
The Pennsylvania House has had a mask rule for its members since June, but a few dozen of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans routinely ignored the mandate, and their party’s leaders failed to enforce it. A Democratic legislature tweeted on Friday that she had filed a complaint with the state health ministry about unsafe working conditions over the problem.
The Ohio House of Representatives Republicans have also opposed efforts to require lawmakers to wear masks in the statehouse, and a statehouse mask mandate from GOP Governor Mike DeWine was also not placed on them.
The debate in the state capitals mirrors that among Washington lawmakers. Masks are required in the US House but not in the US Senate. Senators from both parties regularly take off their masks to speak in the Senate, a practice that has been pushed back by the Democrats.
Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, interrupted a speech Monday afternoon to ask Senator Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, to put on his mask while presiding over the Senate, saying that he could expose staff members nearby .
“I don’t wear a mask when I speak like most senators,” replied Sullivan, snapping that he was going to put the mask on but that “I don’t need your instruction.”