It’s absolutely not safe for lawmakers to return to the Capitol and resume legislative business, said the first Arizona lawmaker to test positive for COVID-19.
Senate Assistant Minority Leader Lupe Contreras and his wife have been quarantined in their bedroom since they tested positive for coronavirus. Contreras’s mother, father, sister and niece have also tested positive.
Contreras, D-Avondale, has continued legislative work from quarantine, talking regularly with Democratic caucus members and Senate leaders as they try to work out a plan to resume or end a legislative session that’s been in limbo for a month. It’s clear that the state can’t return to anything close to normal business until more COVID-19 testing and contact tracing for those who have tested positive is available, he told the Arizona Capitol Times.
“I just don’t think now’s the time to be putting our bills and our personal wants ahead of the public,” he said. “There’s no way for all of us to be there doing business and staying 6 feet apart all day.”
Contreras and his wife, Sara, a special education teacher, obtained COVID-19 tests on April 20, after they began experiencing symptoms, including coughing, fever and headaches and after several other members of his close-knit family tested positive.
“Since then, my wife and I have been quarantined in our bedroom,” Contreras said. “We’ve only been able to speak to our children through the door, and every morning at 4 a.m., we go through the entire home wearing protective gear and sanitize every surface to ensure our children are safe.”
Three of his six children are still elementary-aged and live at home, where Contreras’s niece’s husband has been trying to homeschool them along with his own children. Contreras is now worried about his 7-year-old daughter, who’s not feeling well.
“Being that my family has been attacked the way it is, we need to make sure that everyone who has been around my circle, my kids, that they’re OK,” he said. “We have to make sure that every member of a family has an opportunity to be tested.”
While individual lawmakers know afflicted constituents and a southern Arizona legislative candidate has been diagnosed, this is the closest the coronavirus, which had 5,769 cases and claimed 249 lives in Arizona as of April 23, has hit at the Capitol.
Contreras has been a fixture at the Capitol for eight years. He served in Senate Democratic leadership, first as co-whip and then as assistant minority leader, since joining the chamber in 2015. Over his years in the Senate and a previous term in the House, the moderate Democrat established a reputation as a quiet, affable lawmaker who picks his legislative battles, and as the fiercest softball pitcher legislative teams could field.
“In terms of all the people it should hit, Lupe is such a gregarious, outgoing person,” said Senate Minority Leader David Bradley. “He wears his heart on his sleeve all the time, so you always know where he stands. Whether it’s principle or people, he’s a person who makes it clear where he stands.”
House Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, described Contreras as a “damn good friend.” The two were freshmen in the House together in 2013.
“That was a gut punch,” Shope said.
Contreras and his wife were tested the same day protesters — including some lawmakers — marched on the Capitol to demand Gov. Doug Ducey immediately reverse executive orders that closed businesses deemed non-essential and urged Arizonans to stay home.
Some protesters insisted the disease was a hoax, and an attempt by liberals and media to stoke fear and wreck the economy. Despite shutdown orders in most states, the virus killed 42,000 Americans between March 20 and April 20 — more than died of the flu in the past year.
“If this is a hoax, I don’t wish this hoax on anyone else or their family,” Contreras said. “I hope to God that they don’t have to go through this hoax that we’re going through.”
Hours before Contreras first shared his story in an interview with KTVK (Channel 3) political reporter Dennis Welch, House Republicans balked at a plan by GOP leaders to adjourn the legislative session on May 1, killing all outstanding bills.
Bradley, D-Tucson, said he hopes knowing that the coronavirus has affected a friend and colleague will cause Republican lawmakers to reconsider their opposition to adjourning.
“I would hope that it would get them to think twice,” he said. “I know some of the folks who were upset with the Speaker were also at the rallies at the Capitol.”
Democrats in both chambers are united behind plans Senate President Karen Fann and House Speaker Rusty Bowers presented to adjourn sine die.
“I think both (Senate) caucuses are united in that approach, and I think Senator Fann’s druthers are to do that,” Bradley said. “I think she was a little taken aback when the Speaker called her about a change in plans.”
Sen. J.D. Mesnard, a Chandler Republican who considers himself among a majority of Senate Republicans who oppose immediately ending the legislative session, said he’s praying that Contreras and his family recover soon.
But knowing a colleague has come down with COVID-19 does nothing to change Mesnard’s opinion that lawmakers should leave their options — and the legislative session — open.
“I just keep feeling like there’s no reason to shut everything down at this moment,” he said. “We can continue in this paused state. Maybe we won’t go back. But it’s April. Let’s just continue to hit pause.”
Prior to opting for an immediate sine die, Fann agreed to refrain from bringing to the Senate floor any controversial bills that aren’t supported, already effectively killing plenty of pieces of legislation that passed on acrimonious party-line votes out of the House.
And two Republican senators, Heather Carter of Cave Creek and Paul Boyer of Glendale, pledged today to vote against any measures that are not directly related to COVID-19. Republicans in the Senate can only afford to lose one vote without needing to turn to Democrats.
“The priority is to sine die so we can keep the legislative body safe, and not spend countless hours down there, especially now given the unfortunate diagnosis of COVID-19 for Sen. Lupe Contreras,” Carter said. “That changes everything.”
-Yellow Sheet editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this report
Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include comments from various lawmakers and Lupe Contreras.