House suspends sessions after someone tests for coronavirus
The Oregon House has suspended scheduled floor sessions for the rest of this week, until March 29, because someone at last week's floor session has tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Speaker Tina Kotek said she could not specify whether a legislator or a staff member was infected because of federal privacy restrictions on health information.
A Kotek spokesman said later that the Marion County Health Department has advised people who were in the chamber March 15 or 16 to quarantine themselves and get tested. The 10-day period of exposure ends March 26, so floor sessions can resume on March 29.
Committee meetings are not affected. The Legislature has conducted virtual meetings since the start of the 2021 session.
The Portland Democrat told reporters this during her weekly conference call on Monday, March 22: "We now have a reported case of someone who was interacting on the House floor last week has been confirmed testing positive for COVID-19.
"Out of an abundance of caution, we did not want to be out on the floor for all the time we had planned tonight and tomorrow. We are still trying to figure out all the details. But my No. 1 concern is to keep all the people in the Legislature — members, staff, our dedicated facilities staff and everybody here — to stay safe."
Kotek had scheduled the House to be in session twice a day from Monday through Thursday — for up to a total of 19 hours this week — to allow for the reading aloud of bills up for a final vote. The House has eased its requirement for 40 members to be present on the floor to do business — the number is 25 at one time — as long as others are within reach from their offices in the House wing.
Sixteen bills were carried over from last week to Monday's calendar because House Republicans insisted on invoking the constitutional requirement for all bills on the third-reading calendar to be read aloud. (The requirement is usually waived, but the minority Republicans started invoking it two years ago as a way to slow the lawmaking process.)
The House, in its two-hour session earlier Monday, sent one bill back to committee and passed two others on votes of 55-1 and 51-4.
Under health protocols in effect since the pandemic started a year ago, the Oregon House is sending out notices to members and staff who may be affected by last week's contact.
Kotek said something similar happened last year with a staff member, although the full House was in session during the pandemic for just five days in 2020, all in special sessions.
"This is not unusual," she said. "However, because it was related to people interacting on the floor — and that could be members — we need to notify people."
Not Idaho yet
Kotek said Oregon is not in the same situation as Idaho, where its legislature suspended its session until April 6 after six of the 70 representatives — five Republicans and one Democrat — tested positive for the coronavirus.
Unlike Idaho, face masks are a requirement for legislators and staff in both Oregon chambers.
Oregon lawmakers and staff will become eligible for vaccinations on April 19, earlier than the original May 1 start. Some may have obtained immunizations earlier because of their ages or health conditions; Kotek said she did not know how many were in that category.
The legislative logjam could grow worse.
Although they have not advanced yet to final votes, several budget-rebalancing bills — one of them with $250 million for summer learning and recreational programs for youth — await consideration in the House.
"I would like to have a conversation with House Republican leaders and ask them whether we can move these up in the queue because they're really important," Kotek said. "I think they're the most monumental bills we have so far."
But House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby, who supported the reading-aloud strategy as a way to call attention to Republicans' message, now urged an out-of-the-Capitol quarantine period for all House members. Her statement, which she released after Kotek spoke to reporters, outlined steps she recommended "out of an abundance of caution."
"First and foremost, I hope that the individual who tested positive makes a speedy and full recovery," Drazan wrote. "We all knew that this outcome was possible, which is why we have taken additional precautions since the start of this session to minimize risks for individuals who must be in the building.
"Out of an abundance of caution, my immediate recommendation is for legislators and staff to minimize the risk of an outbreak in Oregon's capitol by returning home and quarantining for 10 to 14 days from the date of possible exposure per Oregon Health Authority's recommended guidelines and schedule testing. There are several elected members from the House with underlying conditions who have not had the opportunity to vaccinate yet.
"We need to do everything we can to keep everyone in the building safe."
However, minority Republicans in both chambers have protested the continued closure of the Capitol to the public since March 18, 2020. They have insisted that the building can be reopened safely, although the majority Democrats have made no moves toward doing so since the start of the 2021 session on Jan. 11.
In an earlier letter, Drazan offered to drop the third-reading requirement if majority Democrats took several steps, as follows:
"We are ready and willing to limit bill reading when the House changes course with a demonstrated commitment to work together:
• "Do not exceed a regular full-time schedule for session days, to maintain public health for legislators and branch employees.
• "Only advance budgets and legislation which have bipartisan consensus support.
• "Shelve legislation which is divisive or controversial and not directly responsive to the pandemic or natural disasters.
• "Require committees balance time among opponents and proponents.
• "Make agenda space for full participation from committee members in deliberations and amendments."
Kotek said she would not do so.
"That is a subversion of democracy," she said. "We are trying to balance a goodwill approach with just being honest about when you win elections, people expect you to work on things they care about."
NOTE: Updates with advisory from Marion County Health Department; March 29 set as earliest date for resumption of House floor sessions.
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