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The Capitol reopens Monday, and visitors must wear masks. Will House lawmakers?

By June 22, 2020 No Comments

Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, speaks on the House floor May 14 — his last day in the Capitol before he was diagnosed with COVID-19. (Courtesy of House Republicans)

By Stephen Caruso
For the Pittsburgh Current
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

After a positive COVID-19 case in the Capitol, Pennsylvania House lawmakers must now wear masks on the House floor and during committee meetings.

The masking requirement is the first to cover lawmakers. It was included in new rules approved by a bipartisan committee of House Republican and Democratic leadership last week.

Under the new rule, all staff and lawmakers must wear masks unless they are eating, alone in their personal office, or speaking on the House floor or in committee.

This rule, as well as a recommendation that lawmakers self-disclose a positive test and provisions for chamber-wide temperature checks if there is a positive case in the Capitol, were adopted in the aftermath of Dauphin County Republican Rep. Andrew Lewis’s coronavirus diagnosis in May.

The mask rule in particular represents a new step for House Republicans. Previously, while Republican staffers were required to wear masks, lawmakers were exempt from the requirement, said Mike Straub, spokesperson for acting House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

As “lawmakers are essentially their own independent contractors,” Straub said the caucus had no ability to regulate their working standards.

As for the new, chamber-wide policy, Straub said he was not sure of the repercussions for breaking it. But pointed out that lawmakers uncomfortable with the rule could vote from their own office, alone, without a mask if they wanted.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, cloth masks are recommended in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

The World Health Organization states that “there has been limited evidence” on the effectiveness of cloth masks, but still recommends them in crowded environments where social distancing is not possible.

Masks have also been mandatory inside private businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies since April 19 in Pennsylvania. But that hasn’t stopped some from eschewing them in the Capitol.

For example, at a committee hearing last week, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said his mask-wearing colleagues were wearing “masks of fear.”

Another nine Republican lawmakers, many sitting next to each other, did not wear masks, according to House video of the hearing, which would be in violation of the new rule. At least six individuals, including a Republican lawmaker and a GOP staffer sitting directly to Metcalfe’s right, were wearing masks.

Metcalfe did not reply to a request for comment.

Six Republican rank-and-file lawmakers asked by the Capital-Star said they planned to wear masks, with or without the policy.

“I wear a mask, but that’s because my immune system is shot due to all the chemo,” Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Indiana, and a cancer survivor, told the Capital-Star. “Not everyone’s blood is acidic.”

He added he respected that others find masks “confining” and may not wear them.

“There are members who have fought this mask thing from day one, but, me personally, I have no problem wearing a mask,” said Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin.

Some Republicans’ derision of masks and the ongoing reopening policy debate were kindling set alight when Democrats discovered Lewis’ diagnosis on May 27. The news shutdown the building in the middle of a busy week of legislative action.

The omission, they said, amounted to a coverup. Everything taken together showed that GOP leadership did not take the pandemic seriously, Democrats further argued.

It wasn’t just Democrats not informed. Rank-and-file Republicans and staff said they were not informed of Lewis’ diagnosis.

Even then-Speaker Mike Turzai denied knowledge and called for stronger health protections — such as a mask requirement and mandatory disclosure of a positive case.

Previously, both caucus’ were governed by internal policies to address a COVID-19 case. The Republican policy specifically forbade sharing the diagnosis behind “close contacts,” which Cutler justified under federal privacy law. At least one expert disagreed.

The new chamber policy is based on the Republicans, but with changes supported by Democrats.

Outside of masks, the new policy “strongly recommends” lawmakers self-disclose a positive diagnosis. There would also be temperature checks for up to two weeks following a positive diagnosis.

The policy, Straub said, “is the first time we’ve seen Democrats agree to any protocols whatsoever. We’re happy to see they see ours as correct.”

In an email, House Democratic Caucus spokesperson Bill Patton said that instead, the policies are based off of “practices that House Democrats first began implementing in March and April. The written Republican policy was largely informed by information we shared with them early on.”

While the policies aren’t official House rule, Patton said Democrats “expect they’ll be followed in a similar spirit with good effect.”

How the policy will be received by House Republicans is unclear. Republican lawmakers said the new policy raised some questions in a closed-door meeting this week.

But one vocal reopening Republican told the Capital-Star that it was not a tense conversation.

“We’ve had a lot of raucous and rock-n-rollin’ [meetings],” Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said. “This wasn’t one of them.”

As for how he and his colleagues will receive the mask rule, Diamond said, “I guess we’re going to find out on Monday, aren’t we?”

The House returns to session Monday, where lawmakers will elect a new speaker to replace Turzai. That day, both chambers will also return to session, and the Capitol will reopen to visitors for the first time in months.

Visitors also will be required to wear masks.

 

Stephen Caruso is a reporter with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.

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