HELENA — Legislative Republicans Wednesday rejected proposals to hold the 2021 Legislature remotely or to require lawmakers to wear face masks or follow other public-health guidelines when they meet at the Capitol next month.
Instead, majority Republicans endorsed the creation of a partisan “leadership response panel” that will react to any COVID-19 crises during the session, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 4.
The panel, controlled by Republicans, would have the power to restrict in-person access at the Legislature, offer COVID-19 testing, or enforce “relevant social-distancing measures.”
“It allows us to be very fluid with the situation,” said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, and chief author of the rule creating the panel. “It allows for testing. If people do want to wear masks, it allows for us to do that. It allows for our personal freedoms and responsibilities.”
The Joint House-Senate Rules Committee approved creation of the new panel and other COVID-19 related rules, on a party-line vote with Republicans in favor. The rules allow for legislators to attend the session, and cast votes, remotely and for the public to provide testimony electronically.
The full House and Senate will vote on the proposal when the session begins, but there’s little doubt it will pass, as Republicans hold large majorities.
Democrats on the committee blasted Republicans for ignoring the pleas of Helena officials, local health officials and others, who urged lawmakers either to hold the session electronically or, at least, require members and the public to wear face-masks at the four-month session and practice social distancing.
“Somehow we think it’s appropriate to ignore their requests,” said Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman. “I think there is no question that we are going to get people sick. We are going to show up on the first day (of the session) with no safeguards in place, none.”
Wednesday’s votes came after dozens of Montanans addressed the committee, electronically, and asked lawmakers either to enforce public-health guidelines or not hold the session in person.
Jill-Marie Steeley, CEO of PureView Heath Clinic in Helena, said the clinic has had to hire 14 temporary employees to deal with COVID-19 responses and is testing more than 200 people a day. She said the Legislature should meet remotely until its members can be vaccinated.
“We are completely overwhelmed,” she said. “We believe an in-person session is a risk we cannot take at this time.”
Helena elementary school teacher Katie Wright also said her students “have no issue wearing a mask” while they’re together and that there’s no reason why legislators shouldn’t do it either.
But Republicans on the committee voted down proposals from Democratic lawmakers to require face masks while in the Capitol and other public-health protocols to prevent COVID-19 spread, to start the session remotely, or to delay the session until vaccines are widely available.
Ellsworth said he expects legislative members to get sick during the session and “it’s possible that members could die – but that’s possible even if we’re here or not.”
The Legislature needs to meet and act on bills that can help people get back to work, he and other Republican lawmakers said.
Ellsworth said the Legislature is discussing hiring a nurse and offering COVID-19 testing for its members.
“We’re going to get through this,” he said. “It’s not going to be unharmed. It’s an epidemic. What we can do, and what this allows us to do, is take responsible measures and be fluid with the situation … God bless us for taking on this challenge.”
Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said discussions have taken place on putting some precautions in place, but that “not for one second have I come off” having protocols like face masks and other widely recommended actions.
“We should not be prolonging this pandemic for businesses in Montana, and we will do so, because we’re not even going to wear (masks),” she said. “When you go home, you could possibly take the virus back home with you, because of behaviors happening in Helena.”
But Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, said it’s false to suggest that Republicans don’t have a plan, and that the rules endorsed Wednesday already set out some guidelines. People can wear a mask if they want, or be in a different room, and still participate, he said.