For legislative employees, two recent committee hearings and last week’s new lawmaker orientation served as a worrisome preview of how coronavirus safety precautions will be followed during the 2021 session of the Arizona Legislature.
And if the hearings and orientation are anything to go by, those precautions won’t be followed by a significant portion of the Republican majority in either the House or the Senate.
The upcoming legislative session begins January 11, 2021, exactly one month from the publication of this article. Republican leaders in both chambers haven’t yet laid out their plans for how to safely run the legislative session as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers is reviewing a list of new safety protocols, a spokesman said. But he has been distracted by ongoing turmoil around election results and the backlash to his decision to shut down the House building for a week and send everyone home. Bowers acted after a handful of mask-scorning lawmakers, who went on to spend three days at the House, met with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani shortly before he announced his COVID-19 diagnosis.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said her staff would have a better sense of how the session will proceed after Thanksgiving, but the Senate hasn’t yet decided what new safety measures, if any, it will adopt.
Legislative Democrats have long called for options to participate in hearings remotely and a building-wide mask mandate that applies to lawmakers, as well as staff and visitors. On that last point, Bowers and Fann will face resistance from significant portions of their GOP caucuses if they even try to enforce a mask mandate.
Big red letters at the top of every page of the agenda for last week’s orientation told new lawmakers that they needed to wear personal protective equipment at all times. They also received phone calls from House employees asking if they would wear masks, but regardless, the masks started coming off as soon as the newly elected Republicans reached the House floor the morning of their first day. By day two, some started joking that they were the “fun group” at orientation.
Hybrid meetings held in the Senate before it also shut down for a week featured Republicans sitting barefaced and close together on the committee dais, while Senate staff and people there to testify wear masks and are spread out in the room. Democratic members, meanwhile, attend via Zoom.
Senior Senate GOP staff were able to get Republican lawmakers to put their masks on at the start of one August meeting that leaders invited reporters to observe, but they couldn’t force senators to keep their faces covered throughout the meeting.
Senate Majority Whip Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he wears a mask when he visits bars and restaurants because he doesn’t want them to lose their liquor licenses. He doesn’t see a reason he should have to wear a mask in the Senate, even though the legislative staff who assist him must.
“They have their rules,” he said. “We have our rules.”
Borrelli also announced this week that he came down with COVID-19 in June, information he didn’t feel compelled to share until he saw snide comments from Democrats on Twitter about expecting him and the other Republicans who met with Giuliani to come down with COVID-19. While Borrelli was sequestered in his home caring for an injured family member during his bout with the virus, his abrupt announcement that he had “been there. Done that. Survived” sparked questions for some in the Capitol community about whether they had or will interact with contagious Republican lawmakers who don’t think the disease is serious.
Incoming House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, framed his call for a mask mandate as a way to keep everybody in the building safe during a virtual press conference this week.
“We cannot gamble with the lives of our members, of our staff, of those college students, those pages who are down there to support us,” he said.
Legislative staffers who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions at work described worries about the session bringing hordes of people to the already-crowded twin 60-year-old buildings, and more worries about the few dozen lawmakers who routinely refuse to wear masks.
Top staff have been taking the disease seriously and workers generally trust that their colleagues will continue wearing masks, several said, but they don’t trust lawmakers and don’t feel like they have the authority to tell a representative or senator what to do.
One House employee described a recent interaction in which the employee backed away from a maskless lawmaker who started talking. The lawmaker didn’t get the hint.
Senior employees, like the rules attorneys, chief clerk or secretary and chiefs of staff, have been bolder in asking lawmakers to follow legislative rules. But even they don’t push it after a lawmaker refuses or ignores them.
For pages – the college students employed as gofers – half the job consists of senators or representatives whispering requests in their ears, and then running off to retrieve whatever the lawmaker needed.
Sukhmani Singh, an Arizona State University student who was a Senate page last session, said she noticed a sharp change in how Republican leaders addressed COVID by late spring. When the disease first caught on in March, Fann had the pages wipe down surfaces and doorknobs with disinfecting wipes every hour. But as the pandemic became politicized, Republican lawmakers started attending rallies and eschewing masks, downplaying the disease as hundreds of thousands of Arizonans fell ill and several thousand died.
Singh said she worries about her friends who are still working in the Senate, who have to weigh their safety against a rare opportunity to work in state government. Working as a page or a low-level research staffer is often the first foot in the door to a career crafting government policy.
“They are literally risking their lives every day to serve their senators and it feels like their senators are laughing in their faces,” Singh said. “My friends that work there have expressed their concerns, but at the end of the day, it’s their job to be there. They can’t boss the senators around, and the senators have no bosses, so it kind of feels like a no-win situation for them.”
Even Republican lawmakers who reliably wear their masks are loath to mandate that their colleagues do the same.
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, described himself as the “foremost person about wearing masks” in his House GOP caucus, and said he will continue to keep his face covered as he moves to the Senate.
A formal change to House or Senate rules, voted on by members, is the only way Shope sees to enforce a mask mandate for lawmakers. But he said he would probably vote against such a change.
“I just don’t really feel like it’s my prerogative or my job to be everybody’s parents,” he said.
Sen. Paul Boyer, a Glendale Republican, said he’ll wear a mask or stand several feet back if someone else asks him to, but he hasn’t given the idea much thought yet. He doesn’t believe COVID-19 is as dangerous as it was in March, when he and fellow Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, left the Capitol for several days to self-isolate.
“I never want anyone to feel uncomfortable around me, so if somebody asked me to put a mask on, I certainly would,” he said. “I have to wear it at school and I don’t like it, but I do it because they’ve asked me to and that’s what we do.”
Boyer, who worked for three years as a House Republican spokesman before he became a high school teacher, acknowledged that legislative staff may not be comfortable telling an elected official to do anything.
Republicans who plan to follow public health officials’ guidance described that choice as a way to keep doing legislative business without risking the possibility of another abrupt end or recess. Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said he will wear a mask and keep his distance when he’s at the Capitol next year, and he hopes to be able to do as much business as possible through video conferences and phone calls.
If he gets to decide how to run the committee meetings he chairs, Mesnard said he’s leaning toward continuing to do them with all members participating by video call instead of gathering in a cramped committee room. Committee chairmen generally have wide latitude in how they run their hearings.
“I’m very, very much opposed to government shutdowns, and part of the way we can avoid others wanting to go down that road is to take certain precautions,” he said. “Whether people think some of these precautions do any good or not. I don’t see how it hurts.”