Texas lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Tuesday two weeks after kicking off their session with the adoption of varying rules to protect against the coronavirus.
But since the Legislature gaveled in for its 2021 session, at least four House members have announced they tested positive for the virus, forcing some colleagues into quarantine and renewing discussion about whether the rules go far enough.
While it’s unlikely the rules will be revisited in either chamber anytime soon, the developments have put some lawmakers further on edge as they prepare for months of legislating in relatively close quarters.
“There’s not a good answer for this, that’s the problem,” Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, told The Texas Tribune last week. “But if we’re all sick, we can’t legislate. And we’re on a time crunch.”
Beckley was one of a handful of lawmakers who said they would self-quarantine after Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, confirmed he had tested positive for the virus at the end of the first week of session. Deshotel had been on the House floor for three straight days and did not receive a test before entering the Capitol on Tuesday or Wednesday.
News of Deshotel’s positive test also came the day after the House adopted chamber rules for the session, which included requiring members to wear masks in the chamber and during committee hearings but did not mandate testing for lawmakers, staff or members of the public.
The Senate, meanwhile, adopted its own set of rules that requires senators to wear masks except while seated at their desks in the chamber and to test negative before going onto the floor. Those rules also require members of the public to test before entering the chamber gallery.
Lawmakers learned Monday that the coronavirus was altering the session in another way: Gov. Greg Abbott will give his State of the State address on Feb. 1 from a small business in Central Texas — rather than packing all 181 state legislators and other statewide officials into the House chamber per usual.
“Everyone’s ability to interact has been dramatically affected by COVID-19,” Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who closed her Capitol and Austin-area offices to the public last week, told the Tribune. “I’m new to the Capitol and still learning the ropes, but my guess is that many meetings and conversations that would typically occur in an office or on the House or Senate floor will have to be conducted over the phone or by videoconference.”
Some House members have defended not requiring tests before entry, arguing that state lawmakers should not mandate testing until it’s more widely available in places like “courthouses … and schoolhouses,” that testing alone cannot prevent the spread of the virus, or that the issue is a matter of personal responsibility.
While the Legislature gaveled in Jan. 12, the House has only met for three days and the Senate only two. Some of those gatherings have lasted hours, especially as the two chambers discussed what protocols should be in place for the session.
Public health officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of protective measures already in place to help work against the spread of the virus and have urged Americans to redouble their vigilance in wearing face masks, maintaining physical distance outside their households, washing hands frequently, and limiting social interactions and indoor gatherings.
In addition to Deshotel, Reps. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo; Tracy King, D-Batesville; and, most recently, Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto, have announced they have tested positive since the Legislature gaveled in. Both Darby and King, who missed opening day after testing positive, will be appearing on the House floor Tuesday for the first time this session.
King told the Tribune that he experienced “mild to moderate” symptoms and that he is now “feeling much better — a few lingering symptoms, but nothing too bad.” He added he has “tested negative at least twice here in the last week or so” and intends to continue to get tested “pretty frequently,” if only to give his colleagues peace of mind.
“I think they’re doing the best that we can given the situation there,” King said of the House rules. “It’s never gonna be enough for some people, and it’s gonna be too much for some others.”
And Darby, who said he “never really had serious symptoms” after testing positive, told the Tribune that he did not know whether testing should be mandatory in the chamber — but that he did “believe each member should have [an] individual responsibility” to wear a mask and monitor their symptoms if they come into contact with a person who tests positive.
“I think this is something that we’re going to have to live with, clearly, the whole session,” he said Monday. “It’s about mutual respect. And out of respect for our colleagues, this is an issue we need to take personal responsibility on.”
Lawmakers have discretion over what protocols to implement in their Capitol offices, and tests are available. Free rapid tests are offered in the nearby Reagan Building and on the north side of the Capitol, and offices can order boxes of tests via the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
“This is a new territory for us,” Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, told the Tribune. “Maybe we look back someday and say we should have done this or that. But this is a personal responsibility — not mandates — type of deal. And I’m comfortable with the way we passed the rules.”
To Holland’s point, the House adopted its rules unanimously — and no member offered an amendment during the hourslong debate that would have tweaked the proposal to include a testing requirement.
Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, a Richardson Democrat who skipped the opening day of the Legislature due to safety concerns, told the Tribune that she was “very, very terrified” of going to the Capitol then. She said the House rules were inadequate and that she would like to see “stronger social distancing” and more plexiglass dividing people on the floor.
“We have to be as hyper-cautious and vigilant as we can be, and I don’t think we’re there,” Ramos said.
As for Deshotel, Ramos said it “absolutely concerns me because the way I see it — he’s one of the believers.”
“I really appreciate Rep. Deshotel being open and alerting us about it,” Ramos said. “I’m just concerned about those who are not open, who are not alerting, who are not testing, don’t wear masks, aren’t as rigid with social distancing.”
Thirty-seven of the 180 members of the Legislature are over the age of 65, putting them in an at-risk group.
After news of Deshotel’s positive test surfaced, new House Speaker Dade Phelan’s office sent lawmakers a “House Protocols Following Exposure to COVID-19” memo, which included guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and information about testing at the Capitol.
“As a reminder,” the memo said without naming Deshotel or stating that a member had tested positive, “no single health protocol taken alone will be able to protect our capitol and stop the spread of this virus.”
The next week, the speaker’s office notified the chamber in another memo that David Lakey, an infectious diseases expert with the University of Texas System, had “agreed to serve as a resource to the Texas House on matters pertaining to COVID-19” and could answer “specific or confidential questions” about being exposed to the virus.
Still, there are indeed sharply divergent attitudes toward the pandemic among some members. Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, objected on the first day of the session when everyone entering the Capitol was required to get tested.
“I don’t think we should be doing the testing,” Biedermann said in an interview shortly before the chambers gaveled in. “I don’t think all this stuff should be mandatory. You know, you can go to H-E-B, you can go to Walmart [without getting tested], but man, look, you can’t even come to your own Capitol. Same people. So it’s very unfortunate.”
In the Texas Senate, meanwhile, the rules are more stringent. The Senate is requiring negative COVID-19 tests for senators who want to enter the upper chamber or attend a committee hearing. Testing is also mandatory for Senate staff the first day of the week they enter the Capitol and before they access a hearing or the chamber.
Through a spokesperson, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who authored the Senate rules regarding COVID-19 precautions, said he was not involved in any discussions with the Texas House.
“He is proud that the Senate came together unanimously in support of strong COVID safeguards to protect Senators, Senate staff and any visitors to the Senate,” Whitmire’s spokesperson said.