The day after nearly 100 mostly unmasked Republican lawmakers gathered in Helena to caucus, the local city-county health board sent a letter telling newly elected legislative leaders the "safest possible plan" would be to hold the upcoming session remotely.
"This would best protect legislators, staff and the public from exposure to SARS-COV-2 and the serious illness associated for COVID-19," wrote Justin Murgel, the chair of the board. "A virtual session would limit the need for travel and the possibility of spread to and from counties across the state. This approach would protect the most vulnerable and still allow for important legislative business to occur."
The novel coronavirus has sickened more than 51,800 Montanans and killed at least 561 since mid-March. It is an infectious disease that the World Health Organization says spreads mostly through droplets of saliva or discharge when a sick person coughs or sneezes.
The use of masks and keeping physical distance between people are recommended to slow the transmission of the virus, which makes something like the legislative session a challenge.
In a normal year, the 90-day session brings hundreds of people, from lawmakers to lobbyists, staffers, journalists and the public, into the Capitol building every day.
Lawmakers are expected to advance rules on how the session will function in a December meeting, and adopt those rules sometime after the session starts Jan. 4.
There were some precautions in place during Wednesday's caucuses, like a temperature check as people entered the Capitol, hand sanitizer around the building, free masks for those who didn't have one and signs that encouraged physical distancing.
But when Republicans, who hold the majority in both the House and Senate, gathered to caucus, mask use was minimal, and some lawmakers hugged, shook hands and sat in desks next to each other.
The county health officer sent a letter two days before the caucuses encouraging lawmakers to participate remotely. About a quarter of the 64 Democrats in the Legislature attended in person, with the rest taking part from outside the Capitol.
Murgel's letter says if a fully virtual session isn't possible, the next best option is to have most people participate remotely, especially those who are at-risk for severe outcomes from the virus. Risk increases with age, and those with pre-existing health conditions are also most likely to be seriously ill. In the 2019 session, 92 of the 150 legislators were age 55 and older, according to the legislative demographics website.
The letter also requests that if lawmakers are present in the Capitol, the Legislature hire a dedicated contact-tracing team. Contact-tracers notify close contacts of cases and tell them they need to quarantine and possibly be tested, depending on local capacity. The also notify those who test positive that they need to isolate.
"Lewis and Clark Public Health does not have the capacity to assist with case investigation and complicated multi-county contact tracing if a member of the legislative body or the public tests positive for the virus while participating in the legislative session," Murgel wrote. He also asked for a point of contact to partner with in preparation efforts.
On Wednesday, incoming Senate President Sen. Mark Blasdel, a Republican from Kalispell, said he appreciated the offer of assistance and work the local health department has done to help legislative staff prepare for the session.
Blasdel said he hoped to meet with the executive director of the Legislative Services Division and minority leadership to begin discussions about the possibility of a contact-tracing team and what the session might look like after lawmakers are sworn.
Newly elected Speaker of the House Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, said there's still unknowns about how the session will look and that he also hopes to start discussions soon.
House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, a Democrat from Helena, said the letter gives the Legislature a menu of options to consider. She said she was optimistic about having meetings with Republican leadership to talk about how to move forward responsibly.
"I have confidence that we can have productive conversations about how we do the business we are constitutionally required to do and represent our communities without putting our communities at risk," Abbott said. "Our caucus is weighing our responsibility to our communities and our responsibility to public health. The Legislature cares about the safety of each other and the safety of our staff and yesterday aside, I think we can move forward and try to create a situation that is safer and do our jobs in a way that allows us to represent our communities effectively."
Susan Fox, the executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said Wednesday the county health officer has sent her information about contact-tracer jobs in an effort to lay the groundwork if the Legislature decides to fund that position.
Members of the Legislative Council and a subcommittee focused on rules have met through the interim to discuss options for how the session could function.
A dispute between Democrats and Republicans during the interim led to the Legislature's chief legal counsel drafting a memo discussing if lawmakers were subject to public health mandates like the requirement to wear face coverings when indoors and distancing is not followed. Lawmakers have authority to create their own rules over what happens in their chambers when they are conducting legislative business.
Montana is under a statewide mask mandate that by Friday will apply to all counties regardless of how many active cases they report. It's unclear if incoming Republican governor-elect Greg Gianorte will continue that or other health directives issued by termed-out Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
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