State Senate meets without 10 GOP senators amid virus tests
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — All but one of the Republicans in the California Senate were barred from the state Capitol on Thursday after they were exposed to the coronavirus, prompting unprecedented changes that will allow them to vote via video conference from their homes as the Legislature rushes to complete its work by Monday’s deadline.
Republican Sen. Brian Jones confirmed Wednesday he had tested positive for the virus. On Tuesday, he attended a Republican caucus lunch 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.
Those senators were scheduled to be tested for the virus on Thursday. Meanwhile, the state Senate met and passed 30 bills and confirmed six of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointments — all while most Republican members were unable to vote.
Some Republicans were furious. They noted leaders shut the Legislature down for a few weeks last month when a Democratic Assemblywoman and a Republican assemblyman tested positive for the virus. And they said they were singled out for quarantine this time even though Jones was on the Senate floor Monday, putting senators from both parties at risk.
“To forbid an entire caucus from voting when all members were exposed defies logic and robs my constituents of their voice,” said Sen. Ling Ling Chang, a Republican from Diamond Bar.
Jones wore a mask while on the Senate floor on Monday and physically distanced from his colleagues. Secretary of the Senate Erika Contreras said Senate officials consulted public health experts and decided Jones did not expose others on Monday.
Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a Democrat, said the Senate worked without the Republicans on Thursday because “we need to get work done.”
She said lawmakers cannot pass bills after midnight Monday unless the governor calls them into a special session. Hundreds of bills are pending, including high-profile police reform proposals filed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in May and a proposal to extend eviction protections to people who cannot pay their rent because of the pandemic.
“Our clock is running out,” Atkins said.
Atkins said the Republican lawmakers would participate remotely on Friday, debating bills and casting votes via videoconference from their Sacramento residences. It will be the first time in the Legislature’s 158-year history state Senators will vote without being present in the chamber — something the Office of Legislative Counsel has said is likely illegal.
But legislative leaders have rejected that advice, saying they are confident they would prevail in any lawsuit.
People should be tested for the coronavirus if they are within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of someone without wearing a mask for at least 15 minutes, said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But he said the Republican lawmakers might be getting tested too soon. He said it takes three to five days after exposure for enough of the virus to be present in a person to be detected.
And even if people test negative, Rutherford said, the fact that they have been exposed means they should still isolate for 15 days because they could be incubating the virus.
Sidelined Republican senators were frustrated on Thursday, including Sen. Brian Dahle. He said he’s worried that remote voting will make any laws the Legislature pass vulnerable to a legal challenge.
“Look, I don’t want to get anybody sick. But I also want to serve my people,” he said.
Complicating matters is the fact that Dahle is not the only state lawmaker in his household. His wife Megan Dahle is a Republican in the state Assembly. Megan Dahle said she has been watching Assembly floor sessions from her office and recording her votes later. She plans to return to the Assembly floor on Sunday.
“I was not mandated to do it or anything like that, but I want to be respectful to my colleagues,” she said.
In addition to Jones, a California Highway Patrol officer who works in the Capitol has also tested positive for the disease. The officer was last in the building on Tuesday but had no contact with senators or their staff members, according to Contreras.
Anyone entering the Capitol from the public entrances must be screened for symptoms, including temperature checks. But those screenings have not applied to lawmakers and staff.
Legislative leaders had asked lawmakers and staff to “self screen” at home, even providing them with thermometers. That changed Thursday, with everyone entering the building now required to go through the screening process.