It’s been almost 3 weeks since the opening day of the Texas Legislature was overshadowed by the politics and subsequent reality of COVID-19. Staff, press and politicos speculated how the House and Senate might shape its rules to prevent an outbreak in the densely populated Capitol building. So far they’re mostly relying on a mask and a prayer.
The House took a lax approach requiring masks unless speaking on legislation at the front or back mic but does not require daily testing before entering the floor as the Senate does. Social distancing will also be difficult since remote voting won’t be allowed from any further than the gallery above or a room adjacent to the floor. Committee hearings can be viewed remotely but committee votes must also be done in person. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how 150 members from every part of the state might spread the virus to each other without a testing requirement and it didn’t take long for the first positive cases to be announced.
A number of members are known to have contracted COVID-19, but my father, Representative Joe Deshotel, tested positive only a few days after members began to meet in person on the floor. He is well now, and had tested negative just a few days before opening day but it’s unclear exactly where or when he picked up the virus. I suspect it was from a colleague, maybe one of the many openly cavalier members who treat masks as an affront to freedom but either way, his experience is more likely a preview of an outbreak to come than an anomaly.
Deshotel’s announcement led to the Speaker releasing a memo regarding COVID precautions and other members self quarantining. The memo reiterates the CDC’s guidelines for quarantining following exposure to COVID-19 including a 10 day isolation period or 7 days with consistent testing. This may suffice in the days before the legislature begins in earnest, but it’s unclear what happens when important bills come to the floor or critical deadlines loom and the outcome depends on who can make quorum.
Some members thanked Deshotel for quickly alerting others so they could take proper precautions. Central Texas Representative Erin Zwiener wrote on Facebook:
”I want to note that Rep. Deshotel didn’t have to be public about his positive test, and I’m grateful that he set a strong tone of transparency for our session. There is 0 shame in a COVID-19 diagnosis, and with COVID on the rise throughout the state, having a case on the House floor was all but inevitable.”
But what happens when members don’t share their diagnosis with their colleagues? Some members have chosen to keep their diagnosis private but rumors abound and left unconfirmed its best to keep them nameless. At least three other members have acknowledged being COVID positive since session began, Drew Darby, Carl Sherman and Tracy King. We wish them a full and speedy recovery.
The vote on rules governing the session were approved unanimously but many representatives remain rightly concerned about the potential for the Capitol to become a source of community spread. At least one representative, Ana-Maria Ramos, skipped the swearing in ceremony altogether out of fear of it being at a super spreader event. Perhaps most concerning is the staff will also be continuously at risk. Members of the public will not be required to test before entering the Capitol. They will be required to wear masks throughout the building with the exception of members’ offices where a mask is not required. For example, Republican Briscoe Cain has declared his office free of mask and social distancing requirements. He is essentially the Louie Gohmert of the Texas Legislature and a hyperpartisan hobbyist, however, COVID-19 doesn’t prioritize its victims by congeniality or effectiveness. The spread may be inevitable but openly disregarding CDC guidelines to make a political point is downright dangerous and irresponsible. So now that the rules of the game are set, all that is left is to mask up, hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.
Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Joe Deshotel is originally from Beaumont, Texas, but a combination of live music, politics, and natural beauty brought him to Austin in 2010. He has over a decade of experience in public policy that covers federal, state, and local government and has worked on a number of successful election campaigns. He continues to consult on Democratic campaigns and serves as the Chair of Austin’s Community Development Commission which advocates for affordable housing and solutions for homelessness.