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Roundhouse COVID cases prompt scrutiny, raise questions

Gilbert C’ de Baca, left, and Gregory Segura, both staffers with the Senate sergeant-at-arms office, patrol the halls of the Roundhouse on Friday to check on mask-wearing compliance. COVID-19 testing at the Capitol has revealed five positive cases over the last two weeks. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s already unusual 60-day legislative session is facing more uncertainty after COVID-19 testing at the Roundhouse revealed five positive cases over the last two weeks – including one Republican lawmaker.

One House committee meeting scheduled for Friday was canceled, but other meetings proceeded as scheduled under an even stricter virtual participation mandate.

Despite the positive cases, House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said he and other top-ranking Democrats are committed to forging ahead, saying there is “no reason” to delay the session.

“The people of New Mexico cannot wait and cannot afford the time for the session to adjourn and convene later,” Egolf told reporters during a remote Friday news conference.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, right, talks with House Chief Clerk Lisa Ortiz McCutcheon after a limited floor session on Thursday. Egolf announced that only three top-ranking House members will be allowed on the floor during floor sessions after several positive COVID-19 cases were reported. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The disclosure of positive Roundhouse virus cases has also prompted finger-pointing, with Egolf saying he had observed repeated violations of the House’s mask-wearing policy by GOP lawmakers.

“What I have observed is some members of the Republican Party do not adhere to COVID-safe practices in any meaningful way,” said Egolf, who also said House Republicans had a catered luncheon this week at which members did not wear masks.

But the two top House Republicans – floor leader James Townsend of Artesia and floor whip Rod Montoya of Farmington – disputed the allegation of a catered luncheon.

Instead, they said a Republican lawmaker had merely picked up individually packaged meals for other members, while also pointing out the state’s current face mask mandate for public settings has an exemption for eating and drinking.

“The speaker should show more concern about the five, unrelated, positive cases within the Roundhouse,” Townsend and Montoya said in their statement, adding they had directed GOP lawmakers and staffers to stay away from the Roundhouse on Friday so that contact tracing and deep cleaning could be conducted.

Meanwhile, Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the Roundhouse cases do not come as a total surprise.

But he suggested state health officials could ramp up enforcement actions targeted at lawmakers who do not abide by a face covering mandate in public settings.

“Legislators can put their masks on, keep their social distance and do their work … just like every other New Mexican who’s been showing up to work for almost a year,” Stelnicki said during a news briefing Friday.

Weekly testing

This year’s legislative session is being conducted largely remotely due to the pandemic, with members of the public and lobbyists barred from the state Capitol in an attempt to avoid a mass outbreak.

Legislative staffers and media members allowed in the Roundhouse are required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, while lawmakers have been requested – but not required – to undergo similar testing.

As of early Friday, there had been 1,186 coronavirus tests conducted at the Roundhouse since on-site testing began Jan. 15, according to the Department of Health.

Of that amount, there were just five positive test results – or about 0.4% of all tests. That’s well below the statewide test positivity rate of roughly 7%, as of this week.

Raúl Burciaga, the director of the Legislative Council Service, said Friday that any close contacts of individuals who tested positive were quickly notified and directed to self-quarantine.

“Certainly there’s always the concern of a larger spread,” Burciaga told the Journal.

He also said the Legislature’s administrative arm was reviewing its notification policies, saying so far top staffers have balanced individual confidentiality concerns against Capitol staffers and lawmakers’ right to know about any positive cases.

The positive test results had not been publicly disclosed until the House GOP caucus released a statement Thursday evening.

Five positive tests

Of the five positive test results recorded at the Roundhouse, three cases – one legislator and two staffers – were detected during testing conducted after the session’s Jan. 19 opening day, according to a Legislative Council Service memo released Friday.

Two State Police officers tested positive at the Roundhouse on Jan. 16 – three days before the session began – and were immediately quarantined, according to House Democrats.

A legislative staffer also tested positive before the session began, according to the caucus, though that test was not conducted at the Roundhouse.

The name of the infected GOP lawmaker has not been disclosed, though legislative leaders have said he is not currently experiencing any symptoms.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said holding the 60-day session before a COVID-19 vaccine is available to most New Mexicans – including legislators – was a risk.

“The virus doesn’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” said Harper, who works as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories.

Meanwhile, Egolf said he was imposing new requirements that Roundhouse committee rooms be closed and that legislators not gather to participate in committee hearings.

In addition, he said House floor sessions would be conducted with only three top-ranking legislators physically present – himself and the Republican and Democratic floor leaders – and the chamber’s other 67 members participating remotely.

‘Back at it Monday’

While legislative committee hearings have been conducted remotely via an online platform, many staffers have been helping to orchestrate the meetings from the Capitol.

Most committees held their regularly scheduled meetings Friday – a day after the positive test results were disclosed – but the House Appropriations and Finance Committee canceled its planned hearing.

Rep. Nathan Small, a Las Cruces Democrat and the committee’s vice chair, said he didn’t expect the cancellation to keep committee members from completing the work necessary to prepare and pass a budget in the first half of the session.

“We’ll be right back at it on Monday,” Small said.

Friday’s cancellation, he said, was related to “staff support” that wasn’t immediately available.

Small also disputed an allegation by House Republicans that the committee had its own buffet-style lunch catered in a room at the Capitol.

Members ate in their own offices, not as a group, Small said.

“There was never any communal eating,” he said.

Dan McKay of the Journal Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

 


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