Colorado GOP Staffer Attends Special Session After Recently Testing Positive For Coronavirus

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Plexiglass shields and social-distance signs are in place around the state Capitol ahead of lawmakers’ return after Thanksgiving for a special session on COVID-19 relief. Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.

The Democratic Speaker of the House notified lawmakers and staff this afternoon that an employee of the House Republicans who had tested positive for COVID-19 recently came to work on Monday and spent time on the House floor.

"The staffer in question has been told to leave the building and not to return for the remainder of the special session until testing is negative," said Speaker KC Becker in an email sent to lawmakers and staff on Monday afternoon.

Becker reiterated that legislative rules require all staff to get tested before entering the Capitol and to wear a mask in the building. She said state officials will conduct contact tracing to identify people who may have been in proximity with the unidentified staffer.

After the news broke, Becker sent out an official statement. 

“This was a reckless breach of the House’s safety protocols, and it will not be tolerated. The minority’s dangerous disregard for simple and effective protections and this staffer’s presence on the floor has placed the health of every lawmaker and member of staff at risk as we meet to pass critical legislation to help Coloradans get through this crisis. Republicans in the House must put the people of Colorado first and follow the House’s common-sense safety protocols.”  

The staffer said they received a positive COVID-19 test on Nov. 17, but revealed their diagnosis in a Facebook post a week later on Nov. 24, writing, “Well It’s my birthday! I have good news and bad news. The bad news: I have covid. Happy birthday to me, right? Luckily, it’s pretty mild symptoms, I just can’t smell or taste a darn thing.”

A note from Kaiser Permanente physician Melissa Noble Johnson, signed electronically this Monday, November 30, at 3:22pm, said the staffer was cleared to resume work on the 24th, the same day as their Facebook post. “The CDC does not recommend using test based strategy to clear isolation. Patient should isolate at least 10 days from when symptoms began AND no fever for 24 hours without the use of an antipyretic medications AND symptoms are improving.”

In another Facebook post on Monday the staffer wrote, “I took [my doctor’s] medical, scientific advice, that those who have had covid recently should not retest to confirm they are clear because they will get a positive test.”

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean said, based on the staffer’s timeline, “there should be minimal concern about their condition."

But Democrats say the staffer violated procedures by failing to show proof of a negative test to be allowed inside the Capitol building and did not properly wear a mask at times on the House floor.

“I’m doing everything I can to keep people safe as we work to pass important legislation to help Colorado businesses and families while COVID continues to spike,” Becker told CPR News.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people isolate for 10 days after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, although recent research suggests the infectious window may be shorter. The New York Times reports the CDC is considering changing its isolation guidelines.

Session starts with disagreements over safety measures

On the opening day of the special legislative session, partisan differences around safety precautions were clearly visible in the chambers. Many House Republicans chose to not wear masks while seated at their desks, as did their Senate colleagues. There’s no rule requiring masks at the desks in the House, which are now separated by clear plexiglass partitions, but it’s strongly encouraged. In the Senate lawmakers are allowed to remove their masks while seated, although no Democrats did. 

A picture widely circulated on social media of Republican Rep. Larry Liston of Colorado Springs, with a mask on his head, joking with unmasked colleagues at neighboring desks. 

Democratic Rep. Brianna Titone of Arvada criticized the behavior from some in the GOP.

“I believe that many of my colleagues decided to participate remotely because they expected this kind of irresponsible behavior,” she said.

Sixteen House members were either working remotely or excused on Monday, including Republican Rep. Janice Rich of Grand Junction who stayed home because she tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. 

Rich said she wears a mask when going into businesses and has no idea how she contracted the illness. But she also questioned the power of masks to prevent infection. “It didn’t work for the governor,” she noted. Gov. Jared Polis tested positive for coronavirus over the weekend.

Republican Rep. Jim Wilson chose to work from his home in Salida. Wilson said his wife has asthma and allergies and her lungs are compromised. “I just put family first and business second. I always have.”

Wilson said he couldn’t comment on the GOP staffer situation because he hadn’t heard the details yet, but did criticize the governor for convening a special session in the first place.

“Here we have the governor calling together legislators from across the state of Colorado and staffers and anyone else who wants to testify. It makes no sense,” Wilson said. 

Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf of Fountain also worked remotely. “My daughter and son-in-law both have COVID and they’ve both been sick. We’ve had their 11-year-little boy in our house for two weeks. In my opinion, if these precautions help we should follow them. To me it’s not worth the risk,” said Landgraf.

Earlier this month, most House Republicans did not wear masks to their caucus’ leadership election inside a committee hearing room at the Capitol. But at the time, Minority Leader Hugh McKean said he expected people to follow the guidelines more closely moving forward.

“I think because we're in such close proximity to each other, most of the members of the legislature will be wearing masks and observing all the safety protocols,” McKean told CPR earlier this month.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional information from the staffer and their doctor.