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How COVID-19 Precautions For Montana's Legislative Session Compare To Neighbor States

The Capitol dome in Helena, MT.
The Capitol dome in Helena, MT.

Lawmakers are about convene for session in Montana and neighboring states. The influx of legislators, lobbyists and public commenters could add pressure to county health departments already struggling to keep up with local coronavirus infections. YPR News’ Kevin Trevellyan has been tracking how states are balancing lawmaking with public health. He shares his reporting with Nicky Ouellet.

Nicky Ouellet: Kevin, the Legislature’s start date is right around the corner on Jan. 4. What kind of plans did lawmakers approve for the upcoming session?

Kevin Trevellyan: This depends on approval by the full Legislature next month, but it looks like the Legislature will hold a hybrid session allowing in person and remote participation.

NO: And Republicans voted down proposals from Democrats to hold the session remotely, delay it or have a mask mandate in the capitol building?

KT: Right, and during the interim most Republicans have been meeting maskless without social distancing.

There are plans to create a COVID-19 response panel to determine if more safety measures are needed throughout the session.

That panel will mostly be made up of Republicans, including Sen. Jason Ellsworth, who introduced the idea. During a legislative committee meeting last week, he said Montanans are suffering and eager to move on from the virus.

“Us being here will allow us to get some good legislation through with a responsible governor that will sign that legislation. And it will benefit business, which will benefit people. And we’ll get through this,” Ellsworth said.

NO: The Lewis and Clark County Board of Health and elected officials on the Helena City Commission and Lewis and Clark County Commission asked lawmakers to hold a virtual session to prevent spreading the virus in their community. How is the county responding to these new plans?

KT: I spoke with county Health Officer Drenda Niemann. She said the COVID-19 situation here is improving but still among the worst of Montana’s populated counties.

“Our cases continue to be at a concerning level. We're barely keeping up with the work that is associated with our county residents. And so is the hospital, for that matter,” Niemann said.

Niemann fears the Legislature’s plans could put more pressure on the county health department and local hospitals.

She said the COVID-19 response panel is reactive, in other words not a proactive way to attack the virus. Barring a remote session, Niemann said distancing and mask wearing are the best tools to prevent further outbreaks and lockdowns until widespread vaccination happens.

“Those are instruments of our freedom. Those are tools by which we absolutely can have our businesses open in our schools in session,” Niemann said.

NO: We asked you to look at other legislatures for this assignment too. How are those states planning to hold their sessions?

KT: The Republican led Wyoming Legislature will convene next month to swear in new members and do some housekeeping, and members will be encouraged to work remotely, said Republican Sen. Bill Landen. He’s on a legislative leadership council that decided to delay the majority of the session until the spring, when vaccines are expected to be more widely available.

Landen said legislative staff were in constant contact with local and statewide health experts throughout the decision making process.

“The more we saw the numbers, the more we saw the hospitalizations and the pressure on our healthcare workers, we just thought it was prudent to push this back a little bit. The last thing we wanted to do is create a thousand person hotspot across the street from the hospital and not be able to take care of people,” Landen said.

NO: For Wyoming lawmakers, catching the virus isn’t a hypothetical concern, is it?

KT: Unfortunately not. Landen served on a committee with Rep. Roy Edwards, who died from COVID-19 the day before being re-elected last month. Landen also said Senate President Drew Perkins tested positive last month.

“He has indicated that he will be on oxygen for the next two months. And so, it's a really serious pandemic. And when it hits people close by, it just drives it home,” Landen said.

Lawmakers have also died from COVID-19 in North Dakota and South Dakota, as well as other states around the country.

NO: Republicans control both chambers of the South Dakota Legislature. How will that session work?

KT: Like the other states I researched, the South Dakota Legislature will meet in January. According to Kelo News, lawmakers there are erring a bit closer to the side of caution than in Idaho and Montana, at least with face coverings. South Dakota legislators circulated a report last month saying representatives are expected to wear masks much of the time and senators not wearing masks should remain six feet away from staffers when possible.

Remote participation will also be allowed if the lawmaker is sick, in quarantine or in a household with someone who has a preexisting condition.

NO: Republicans also run the North Dakota Legislature. What will that session look like?

KT: Republican North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum issued a mask mandate last month and the Legislature will follow his lead and require face coverings among lawmakers, according to GOP House Majority Leader Chet Pollert.

“There’s protocols that we need to be following that are set either by the state or the city,” Pollert said.

There will also be mandatory temperature checks, which Pollert told me was a compromise with the caucuses’ more conservative members who didn’t like an earlier proposal for mandatory testing.

For Pollert, the precautions are about health but also ensuring business can run smoothly with an intact legislative staff.

“In order for the legislative process to work, from the legislators themselves to the employees, we've got to make sure we can hold this session,” Pollert said.

NO: How are those plans being received?

KT: Renae Moch directs public health for Burleigh County, which includes North Dakota’s capital city of Bismarck.

She said the Legislature’s chosen preventative measures are encouraging but safety will ultimately come down to the nuts and bolts of session procedure. She said balancing public health with the need for public participation isn’t straightforward.

“Those testimony quarters are not large. People giving testimony, you don’t know what they’ve done as far as monitoring. Have they been tested? Are they symptomatic,” Moch said.

Lawmakers often talk about doing “the people’s work.” As Moch mentioned, members of the public typically testify during hearings. And there are lobbyists and journalists to think about. A couple hundred people are usually cycling in and out of capitol buildings over the course of a day.

NO: The Idaho Legislature met for a short special session in the summer. That experience really underscores some of the potential difficulties with public participation, right?

KT: It does. During those three days, the Associated Press reported angry protesters opposed to emergency pandemic restrictions shattered a glass door while forcing their way into the Idaho House gallery, which had limited seating because of the pandemic. The next day, about 100 protestors again gathered in the capitol without masks or distancing, including anti government activist Ammon Bundy, who was arrested twice at the capitol.

NO: What coronavirus precautions did the Idaho Legislature take in August?

KT: Not many. Though Democrats wore masks and had plexiglass shields around their desks, Republican lawmakers generally went maskless and ignored social distancing requests. The Idaho Legislature is scheduled to convene next month under similar rules, even though Republican Gov. Brad Little asked lawmakers to delay the session or go virtual.

NO: The GOP controls both chambers of the Legislature there right?

KT: That’s right. And Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke told Idaho Ed News that he won’t issue any mandates or rules involving masks or social distancing.

That doesn’t inspire much optimism for Russell Duke, who directs the public health district that includes Idaho’s capital. He’s disappointed that science backed precautions have become so politicized.

“It’s just a really odd time for those of us who work in public health where we’re seeing record numbers of cases and record numbers of deaths. This is a time we really need to focus on our efforts, and I feel like to some extent it’s going the wrong direction in terms of the public’s response," Duke said.

NO: Montana lawmakers will vote on the proposed COVID-19 response panel on the first day of the session, so while it seems health requirements for the session will be less stringent than our neighbors’, that’s still subject to change. Does Lewis and Clark County have any authority over lawmakers’ behavior?

KT: Well, the Lewis and Clark City County Board of Health passed new emergency health rules last week requiring face masks in public and limiting group size.

Health Officer Drenda Niemann told me the rules were partially written in anticipation of Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte, who has said he prefers personal responsibility to public health mandates.

Niemann said Lewis and Clark County will also try to hold the Legislature to its rules.

“How fair would that be if we didn't address it at the session, but we were holding local businesses accountable to it? We have to be consistent,” Niemann said.

But, it’s worth noting legislative Code Commissioner Todd Everts has said other entities don’t have jurisdiction over lawmakers in the capitol.

Also, for the upcoming session, Montana lawmakers have requested more than a dozen bill drafts that aim to limit the authority of county public health officials and governors during declared emergencies.

NO: Counties across Montana, including Lewis and Clark, have received pushback on new restrictions, often from people who don’t believe it’s fair to hold these emergency rules over businesses trying to stay open in a tough economy. How does Niemann feel about that?

KT: Niemann said the Board of Health is obligated to put these rules into place to protect residents. She compared pushback to not being able to fight a common enemy during war.

“Honestly, it's exhausting. We're all really tired. We've been at this for months and months and months. The whole health department and all the staff that work here are nothing but committed to the welfare of this county. It just makes it our jobs that much more difficult when we cannot tackle this in a unified manner,” Niemann said.

She said Lewis and Clark County has a long way to go before it’s out of the woods.

NO: Kevin, thanks for sharing our reporting.

KT: Thank you.

Copyright 2020 Yellowstone Public Radio