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HELENA — With less than a week to go, state lawmakers are anticipating the 2021 legislative session with a range of conflicting emotions. For some, a strong sense of foreboding prevails about indoor gatherings during a contagion. Others can barely contain their enthusiasm.

“I think it’s going to be a good session. I feel positive about it,” said Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who said he’s optimistic about working with the incoming Republican administration. “To tell you the truth, the closer it gets, the more I wish I was there already.”

Public health officials have strongly encouraged the Legislature not to hold in-person proceedings as COVID-19 continues to affect Montanans. The virus, which largely spreads through aerosols emitted when contagious people speak, breathe and cough, has infected 81,300 Montanans and killed 950.

The Joint House and Senate Rules Committee voted in mid-December to proceed with a hybrid session, beginning Jan. 4, in which lawmakers can attend proceedings at the Capitol building in-person or participate remotely via video conferencing. The mostly Republican committee did not pass Democrat-sponsored amendments that would have required lawmakers to abide by preventative public health guidelines: wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and temperature checks for in-person attendees. Proposals to hold entirely virtual proceedings or delay the session until a vaccine becomes more widely available were also voted down along party lines. 

The prospect of convening lawmakers from across the state in close quarters without pre-established safety protocols has left some legislators feeling cornered into working remotely.

“Given that there doesn’t seem to be a really serious attempt to follow public health guidance — really basic stuff, you know — I’ll be mostly virtual,” said Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings, who noted that her immune system is compromised after a battle with breast cancer decades ago. “Obviously that’s not the best way to do all this, but it’s the only option for me, given that masks and other things don’t seem to be of much interest to people.”

Other lawmakers from both parties are planning to attend in-person despite the health risks highlighted by local officials, saying they do their best legislative work when they can easily interact with colleagues, lobbyists and members of the public.

“Truth is, I hate to feel left out,” Cuffe said. “I like to be able to see people and feel the energy in the room as things are going, and see the facial expressions and things like that.”

Several legislators who plan to physically attend session proceedings told Montana Free Press they intend to wear masks either regularly or on occasion. Cuffe said he may decide to wear a face covering depending on the situation. He said he doesn’t want to make his colleagues uncomfortable by forgoing a mask, but he finds it difficult to breathe when he wears one. 

“I’m not trying to be smart-alecky about it,” he said. “It’s just a fact.”

After lawmakers caucused in November to select leaders, Republicans faced a stream of criticism from Democrats and health officials for largely ignoring mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines outlined in a letter from the Lewis and Clark City-County Board of Health. As the session approaches, lawmakers say some constituents have been vocal about wanting their representatives to take precautions.

“I’d heard from quite a few people, mainly that we need to wear masks,” said Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, who said she plans to mask up and participate in the session in-person. “I’m a Republican, but I wear masks because I’m not in junior high. I understand the science. It’s not asking too much. It’s not going to kill me to wear a mask.”

While the political will for mask requirements was lacking in the Joint Rules Committee, House and Senate leaders could still tighten health protocols as the session proceeds. The committee passed a proposal to create a COVID-19 Response Panel tasked with considering safety measures for legislators and the public. Republican supporters said the panel will allow for an ongoing, flexible response to the virus. Democrats countered that the new panel creates unnecessary delays and prolongs uncertainty for lawmakers and the public. 

Absent a robust strategy for limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the Capitol, trepidation about the session remains widespread among legislators. Some officials who have already contracted the disease said they fear less for their own health and more for the safety of others.

“I’m a Republican, but I wear masks because I’m not in junior high. I understand the science. It’s not asking too much. It’s not going to kill me to wear a mask.”

Rep. Geraldine custer, R-Forsyth

“I think when it shows up we all do need to step back a little bit and assess and do a little bit of contact tracing,” said Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, who said he came down with the illness in early November. “I’m immune for a while now, but there’s others up there where they fall into the age demographic [that need] to protect themselves.”

Scientists are still researching how contracting and recovering from COVID-19 affects immunity. Small said his symptoms were relatively mild and mostly consisted of fatigue and body aches.

“And I tell you one thing — I wouldn’t want a severe case. You don’t want it severe,” he said. “A month and a half later, I’m still coughing junk up. It can stick with you for a while.”

While he plans to attend the session primarily in-person, Small said COVID-19 has made it more difficult for citizen legislators to travel to Helena for a number of reasons. As a boilermaker and a small-business owner, Small said, his work dropped off dramatically during the early stages of the pandemic. His wife’s career has also been impacted by staying home with their two children during remote learning.

“I can’t expect my wife to maintain a job if both my kids are at home learning,” Small said. “It’s just been a terrible damn year.”

The option for remote participation, Small said, may ease some of the hardships that lawmakers will navigate during the session. Even so, many legislators fear that participating virtually, far from the halls and chambers of the Capitol building, will compromise their ability to represent their constituents and the issues they care about.

“I am attending because I’m only a minority of a minority,” said Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder and a member of the Legislature’s American Indian Caucus. He also said he tested positive for COVID-19 this fall and plans to wear a mask while working in the Capitol. “If anyone is going to make a decision on my behalf and my people’s behalf, I’m going to be at the table.”

House and Senate leaders have notified their members that they can be officially sworn in at the Capitol building on Monday, or take their oath at a remote location before a qualified official, such as a justice of the peace. The session formally convenes at 12:00 p.m on Jan. 4.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare and criminal justice systems, including public health matters such as substance use disorders and mental health care. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.