SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Nearly all of the Republicans in the California Senate were barred from entering the state Capitol on Thursday after they were exposed to the coronavirus, prompting unprecedented changes that include allowing lawmakers to vote via video conference from their homes as the Legislature rushes to complete their work by Monday’s deadline.
Republican lawmakers were furious. State Sen. Jim Nielsen — the only Republican allowed on the Senate floor on Thursday — blasted his Democratic colleagues for continuing to meet without the voice of the opposing party. He urged Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins to cancel the Senate’s work until the Republicans could be tested and allowed to return.
“What’s more important? The health or a handful of bills at the end of session,” Nielsen said.
But lawmakers are running out of time. They cannot pass vote after midnight Monday, and hundreds of bills are pending. They include dozens of high profile measures, including police reforms filed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in May and a proposal to protect people who are not able to pay their rent because of the pandemic from eviction.
“Our clock is running out,” Atkins said. “We have work to do.”
Republican state Sen. Brian Jones confirmed in a Facebook post on Wednesday that he had tested positive for the virus. Jones was on the Senate floor on Monday with his colleagues. He also attended a Republican caucus lunch on Tuesday, where 10 of the 11 members sat around a large conference table and removed their masks to eat, according to Republican state Sen. John Moorlach.
The Senate canceled its session on Wednesday, but met Thursday. They took action on several bills, but held the roll open so Republicans could add their votes later.
Senate Republicans were scheduled to be tested for the coronavirus later Thursday.
“I feel frustrated obviously that I’m prepared and ready to go but I’m being asked not to, so what else can I say,” said Moorlach, who said he has no symptoms of the disease,
The Legislature has already been delayed twice, once in March at the start of the pandemic and again in July after at least seven people who work at the Capitol — including two lawmakers — tested positive for the disease. Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey was briefly hospitalized.
This latest outbreak also includes a California Highway Patrol officer who works in the Capitol. The officer was last in the building on Tuesday, but had no contact with senators or their staff members, according to a memo from Secretary of the Senate Erika Contreras.
Anyone entering the Capitol from the public entrances must be screened for symptoms, including temperature checks. But those screenings did not apply to lawmakers and staff, who usually enter the building from the parking garage.
Legislative leaders had asked lawmakers and staff to “self screen” at home and not to come to work if they have symptoms. That changed Thursday, with everyone entering the building now required to go through the screening process.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.