Indiana lawmakers clash over COVID-19 protocols as 2021 session nears

Democrats and Republicans clashed over COVID-19 protocols on Tuesday as they gathered for a ceremonial start to the 2021 legislative session.

Organization Day — the day when lawmakers are sworn in and leaders of each chamber share their expectations for the session — is typically a day without any policy discussions or major votes.

But on Tuesday, state Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, introduced a proposal that would have required all representatives to wear masks while in the House chamber or any room or hallway “where official House business is being conducted.”

“We really ought to be leading by example,” Pierce said.

The Legislative Continuity Committee, which was tasked with determining how lawmakers could convene safely next year, voted against mandating masks during a meeting last week.

House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta said he then heard from members of his caucus who were concerned about their personal safety and the safety of others in the Statehouse if masks were only recommended, rather than required.

Pierce’s proposal said other House members would “determine whether a fine, censure or other penalty should be imposed” if a lawmaker refused to comply.

Two Republicans — state Rep. Curt Nisly of Milford and state Rep. John Jacob of Indianapolis — were seen without masks on Tuesday.

House Republicans, who are in the supermajority, opposed Pierce’s measure, and it died on a party-line vote.

“It’s not going to take very much for this COVID to really move throughout the House and the Senate once it takes hold in the Statehouse, and then that means we’re going to be taking it back to our families,” Pierce said. “So, I’m disappointed we could not get the amendment passed.”

House Speaker Todd Huston said he didn’t see the proposal until about a half hour before the session started on Tuesday, and he did not think it was written well.

“That motion was not well thought out — and clearly written in a way that would have caused a lot of problems for a lot of members,” he said.

Huston said a “vast majority” of lawmakers wore masks and he will continue to encourage them to do so.

Other COVID-19-related protocols remain unclear or undecided, which House Democrats say they are also worried about. For example, neither chamber has a procedure in place for testing members or a plan for shutting down if too many members get sick or have to quarantine.

Neither Huston nor Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray have a threshold for if and when lawmakers would be temporarily sent home due to an outbreak.

“We’ll have to figure out what that looks like,” Huston said. “There obviously … is a threshold. We have to acknowledge there’s a threshold. I just don’t know kind of what it is.”

And neither chamber is planning to give lawmakers an opportunity to participate virtually if they contract the virus themselves or have to quarantine. Lawmakers would be able to watch proceedings from home but would not be allowed to vote.

“I think that it’s pretty clear the leadership of the Republican party is very reluctant to make decisions, and I think they’re trying to balance out not upsetting their conservative base of support and some members of their caucus” Pierce said.

It’s also unclear if and when the public will be notified if a lawmaker tests positive.

“That’s not something that I am prepared to do, at least at this point,” Bray said. “We’ll continue to think about that.”

Huston said it will be up to lawmakers to decide whether they will publicly disclose their own illnesses — should they occur — but they would be expected to tell legislative leaders about their positive test so contact tracing can be conducted.

Huston and Bray said if a member tests positive, they will follow CDC guidelines for contact tracing. But that does not necessarily mean that all other lawmakers — including those in the opposite party — will be notified if a member tests positive.

Bray said officials have to balance the lawmaker’s privacy with the need to notify others if they have been exposed.

“We need to figure out how to get that right,” Bray said. “We’re probably still working on that and we’ll continue to try to fine tune it.”

State Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, said she’s concerned that the current system relies so heavily on self-reporting, because if a lawmaker with the virus doesn’t say something, he or she could end up exposing staff and other lawmakers.

Shackleford told reporters in a virtual press conference that she found out on Tuesday that she had a close contact with someone who has tested positive — her sister, with whom she had recently been on vacation. Shackleford, who was wearing a mask, was in the same room as other lawmakers during the press conference.

“I should be quarantining,” Shackleford said. “I will leave the Statehouse and quarantine.”

She said she would be getting tested on Wednesday.

“We’re going to see this numerous times,” Shackleford said. “We’re going to be engaged with people that get tested positive, whether it’s a family or friend, and I don’t think we have any rules or policies in place on when people should be tested, when they have to come back and report that testing, [and] how that’s going to be regulated.”

Lawmakers are expected to return Jan. 4 for the start of the session.

“We’re certainly in a different Organization Day,” Huston said. “A day I don’t think any of us will forget.”

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