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Montana Legislature cancels floor sessions Monday, pushes committees remote due to COVID
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Montana Legislature cancels floor sessions Monday, pushes committees remote due to COVID

The Legislature will again cancel floor sessions Monday and committees will generally meet virtually after a lobbyist tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

A press release sent Friday evening said “less than a dozen” legislators have been contacted by a contact tracer and none have tested positive or shown symptoms yet, though symptoms can take days to develop.

“The contact tracer continues to work to ensure all close contacts have been notified. No legislator has yet tested positive for COVID-19 or shown any symptoms this week,” read the release from Kyle Schmauch, the spokesperson for the Legislature’s COVID-19 panel.

The session is being held under a hybrid model that allows for remote participation because of the pandemic. 

There was no information about the total number of people contacted by the legislative contact tracer in addition to lawmakers, such as other lobbyists, staff, members of the press or public who are in the Capitol. Schmauch only had information for lawmakers and the county health department said it did not have details Friday afternoon.

The lobbyist was not in the Capitol on Thursday, but was on various days earlier in the week.

With a few exceptions, lawmakers participated in committee meetings remotely Friday and floor sessions for the House and Senate were canceled. Not holding floor sessions means neither chamber gavels in, so they won't use a legislative day. The session is scheduled to run through May 11, though lawmakers had expected to wrap up sometime in late April. There are 90 allocated for each session in odd-numbered years.

Friday afternoon, the panel released information that showed nine lawmakers, seven staff and two other people were tested Friday through state-run programs in Helena and all tests returned negative. Since some lawmakers have traveled home for the weekend, testing can also be done in other locations that won’t be captured in reports.

Schmauch said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, the Hamilton Republican who chairs the COVID-19 panel, had not been made aware of any lawmaker feeling sick or testing positive. Symptoms can take five or six days to develop, or longer at times.

While six lawmakers, in addition to an unknown number of lobbyists, members of the press and others in the Capitol building this session, have tested positive for the virus, in-person participation hasn’t been shut down since the Legislature convened Jan. 4. 

Schmauch said earlier Friday before the Monday floor sessions were canceled the reason for the in-person pause was timing.

“We found out late enough in the day there was no way we could get all contacts traced and notified by the time people were coming back into the building (Friday),” Schmauch said. “What we didn’t want to have happen is people coming into the building who are close contacts and pull them out of the building while they were mingling with people.”

Democrats, who are a minority in the session, said Friday they were not notified in a timely fashion about the case Thursday.

“Consistent with the entirety of the session, Democrats have not been included in initial notification of positive cases of COVID-19 or the following discussions about how to handle cases," said Senate minority spokesperson Erin Loranger on Friday. “Minority Leader Cohenour was in committee yesterday when she heard rumors the building was being shut down. When she left the committee and found the chair of the COVID Panel, she was informed of one positive COVID-19 case shortly before the GOP sent out a press release. She was not included in discussions about how to handle the positive case or why this positive case led to closing the Capitol when past cases did not. By the time she was informed, they had already begun disinfecting the building.”

While most lawmakers remotely attended the few committee meetings held Friday, some came into the Capitol, though the press release from the COVID-19 panel the night before said legislators would not meet in person.

The press release Friday canceling Monday’s floor sessions said “committees meeting on Monday will hear public testimony only over Zoom and legislators will participate virtually unless they have internet issues, tech problems or other extenuating circumstances.”

There’s nothing in the panel or Legislature’s rules that would allow blocking a member from coming into the Capitol.

Susan Fox, the executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said there were some staff required to set up meetings in-person Friday, but they were directed to do so as early as possible and then get out of meeting rooms. There was testing available Friday and will be again Monday for staffers and they will attend meetings remotely, Fox said.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who returned to the Capitol on Wednesday after testing positive for COVID-19 and spending his isolation period in his Bozeman home, was in the Capitol on Friday and posted a photo on social media around others indoors and not masked. Lewis and Clark County still has a mask mandate, though Gianforte lifted the state's in February. Lawmakers are not subject to the requirement while in the Capitol.

On Friday, the governor’s office said aside from a new case it reported Monday, there have been no more positives in their office.

“For each day this week, all present staff members in the governor’s office were tested and received only negative results,” wrote press secretary Brooke Stroyke.

On Thursday, after exhibiting mild symptoms Wednesday, the director of the Department of Administration, Misty Ann Giles, was tested for COVID-19 and received a positive result.

“The director has followed her doctor's orders, has been quarantining and notified all individuals with whom she has had close contact,” an agency spokesperson said Friday. “Staff members with whom the director had close contact are teleworking without any impact to agency operations.”

More and more people have been coming into the Capitol for the session, both lawmakers and the public, in recent weeks, as access to vaccinations have increased. All adults became eligible for vaccinations April. 1.

It was unclear how many department employees were quarantining because of exposure at work.

There was not data Friday about how many lawmakers have either had the virus and are still within a 90-day assumed immunity window or have been vaccinated and have immunity. Schmauch said Ellsworth was identified as a close contact of the lobbyist but is two weeks or more past his second vaccination and did not have to quarantine.

Drenda Niemann, the Lewis and Clark County public health officer, said Friday that it will take time to see the full scope of situation in the Capitol.

“We definitely will be watching and our team has the ability to connect it all together,” Niemann said. “They will be monitoring and getting a clear understanding of all the close contacts and what the larger impact will be, but it’ll be a couple weeks out before we get a really good sense of what the overall impact of it was.”

Niemann said how big the scale of it becomes depends “on if people do the right thing.”

“If there are symptoms, did they stay home? Get tested? And when they were given their quarantine or isolation order, did they do the right thing?” Niemann said.

Anyone who thinks they could have been exposed at the Capitol, even if they haven't been contacted by a tracer, should call the Lewis and Clark County COVID-19 Hotline at toll free 833-VAXXC19 (833-829-9219).

Testing is available at Walgreens, Pureview and St. Peter’s Health in Helena.

“We don’t always necessarily get the full story or the comprehensive list of contacts because we rely on the case to say what they’ve been doing, where they’ve been and who they’ve been in contact with,” Niemann said.

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Montana State Bureau Chief

State Bureau reporter for Lee Newspapers of Montana.

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