State Capitols Grapple With Mask Mandates Amid Coronavirus

A Democratic state senator in Ohio walked out of a hearing last week when he noticed that dozens of spectators in the room were masked and seated together.

“I saw the danger,” said the senator, Cecil Thomas, who said he worries about the risk of infection in part because his daughter has a severe immune system.

Mr. Thomas returned to his office, where he watched – but could not attend the rest of the hearing.

With the coronovirus crisis over almost a year, there is no national standard for lawmaking during an epidemic, with state capitals around the country battling to complete a new session of law sessions. A partisan pattern has emerged, but shifting, inconsistent rules remain a patchwork about where to meet, how the public can participate, and what to do about masks.

Masks are required on the floor of legislatures of both states, in at least 28 states, according to the New York Times survey of legislatures in every state; 17 of the 28 states are controlled by Democrats. Legislatures in at least 18 states, including Republican-controlled 15, do not require masks on the floor in at least one chamber. In three state legislatures, where party control is divided, one requires masks and two do not.

In Minnesota, the Democratic-held House requires masks, but the Republican majority of the Senate blocked the proposal to require masks in the upper chamber. Senators are allowed to attend sessions remotely. Republican leader Senator Paul Ghazalka said “part of it is simply honoring those who may have a different view”.

Similar partisan divisions have appeared across the country. In Ohio, Republican lawmakers have pushed for Democrats to require facades in the Statehouse and to allow remote participation. Therefore, as Mr. Thomas’s colleagues heard public comments on a bill to limit the Governor’s emergency powers that could allow lawmakers to veto the Governor’s public health orders, Mr. Thomas was unable to ask questions in his office. I was listening

Other Republican-led legislators, such as Missouri, have also reduced the need to wear masks. The Arizona House of Representatives held two swearing-in ceremonies earlier this year: one for legislators who would wear masks, and another for those who would not. Republican leaders in South Dakota, the nation’s second-highest rate of known coronovirus cases, have required masks in the Senate, but have encouraged them in the House. Legislators are allowed to attend and vote remotely in both divisions.

There is no shortage of pressing issues facing state lawmakers – budget shortfalls, economic relief and redistribution, to name a few – many of the state government rituals have been disrupted by the epidemic.

At least 26 governors, both Democrats and Republicans, moved their state addresses annually online or gave them in places that allowed greater distance than legislative chambers. Members of the public have been barred from Capitol buildings in 22 states. Legislatures in 27 states have allowed MPs to attend sessions and cast votes from houses or other places in Capitol buildings.

And lawmen on both sides have gathered in situations that were unimaginable a year ago.

In Maryland, a maze of plexiglass barriers isolated masked lawmakers on the Senate floor as they returned to work last month. The New Hampshire legislature held its event meetings outside. In Illinois, the House of Representatives has traded in a convention center instead of the Capitol. And in California, the Legislative Assembly held its opening ceremony at the Golden 1 Center, the home field of the Sacramento Kings of the NBA.

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