GOP lawmaker’s positive COVID-19 test cancels voting session

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Republican lawmaker’s positive test for COVID-19 on Thursday prompted legislative leaders to immediately cancel the day’s Pennsylvania House voting session, and human resources workers were deployed to trace his personal contacts to see if others should be quarantined.

Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, issued a statement saying he began to feel sick on Wednesday and got the positive test result Thursday. He then notified House officials. He was most recently in the Capitol on Tuesday.

Although state House employees are all required to wear masks in the Capitol, that does not apply to the representatives themselves.

Schemel declined an interview request from The Associated Press, but his spokesman provided a photo of him wearing a mask at a legislative committee hearing Tuesday in the Capitol.

A significant number of House Republicans have continued to be maskless inside the Capitol, and some have defiantly ridiculed mask wearing as an overreaction or ineffective. Legislative Republicans have pushed back against Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s strategy to address the coronavirus, from social distancing rules and shutdown orders to limits on public gatherings and school sports attendance.

During a gun-rights rally on the Capitol steps on Tuesday, several House GOP members were not wearing masks amid the crowd of a few hundred at the outdoor event. Others were maskless in the Rotunda and hallways.

A Facebook photo shows a maskless Schemel addressing people at a pig roast on Saturday, four days before he noticed symptoms.

Allen Coffman, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Committee, said Schemel spoke for five or 10 minutes inside a garage-like pole building. Coffman said about 200 people attended the event and few wore masks.

Republican candidate for state Attorney General Heather Heidelbaugh, who also spoke at the pig roast, said she was in the back of the room for much of her time there.

“I know I didn’t meet him,” Heidelbaugh said. “I didn’t shake his hand, and I’m very confident I wasn’t within 6 feet or 12 feet of him.”

House Judiciary Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, was also at the event and said he did not recall speaking with Schemel. Kauffman said he does not intend to get tested.

“I don’t. I have not been contact-traced, and have no reason to believe I need to,” Kauffman said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top health officials have reiterated their pleas for people to wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines to stymie the spread of the virus.

Schemel, a 48-year-old lawyer who lives in Greencastle, is completing his third term in the House, representing a rural area where Interstate 81 crosses the Maryland state line.

He is the second House Republican to test positive for COVID-19. In May, Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, waited a week before he disclosed his diagnosis, prompting angry objections from Democrats. Lewis has since recovered from the illness.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have continued to meet during the pandemic under rules that permit lawmakers to vote from home or from their Capitol offices, or to vote in person.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For older adults, people with existing health problems and some others, it can cause severe illness and death.

The House’s chief clerk, David Reddecliff, said contact tracing has begun, but it was too soon to say if others need to quarantine. The House’s next scheduled session is Oct. 19.

The House had been scheduled to take up a Republican-backed measure Thursday that would set up a GOP majority committee to investigate the election during its last month.