Credit: Simon Foot via Flickr

HELENA – The Legislature announced late yesterday that Friday floor sessions have been postponed while it responds to a positive case of COVID-19 at the Capitol.

The announcement stated that a “member of the government affairs community” had tested positive for the virus, and that both the House and Senate floor sessions would be delayed “out of an abundance of caution” to buy the Legislature’s contact tracer time to inform close contacts of the situation. Committees scheduled to meet Friday were given the option to meet remotely in accordance with the Legislature’s COVID-19 protocols. Since the start of the session, six lawmakers, as well as Gov. Greg Gianforte and two staffers in the governor’s office, have tested positive for COVID-19, though none of those cases resulted in floor session postponements.

Montana Free Press spoke Friday morning with Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, a deputized public health officer and chair of the Legislature’s COVID-19 Panel. Ellsworth said the situation developed rapidly late Thursday afternoon. After receiving confirmation of the positive case, Ellsworth spoke with the individual, who he said was already getting in touch with the contact tracer to share a list of close contacts. Ellsworth added that several of those contacts were still inside the Capitol.

“Even though it is not my job to contact trace, out of an abundance of caution, I spoke to some of those individuals that were still there and asked them to please quarantine and they would be getting a call from the contact tracer,” Ellsworth said. “And everybody obliged that was still in the building at that time.”

Ellsworth himself was one of the close contacts but had already received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Ellsworth confirmed that a number of lawmakers will be quarantining as close contacts, and several scheduled events both in and out of the Capitol Thursday night were canceled. He added that no one else associated with the case has tested positive and that, to the best of his knowledge, the contact tracing was complete as of Friday morning.

In an email to MTFP, Erin Loranger, communications director for the Senate Democrats, wrote that Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-Helena, was in a committee hearing when she “heard rumors the building was being shut down.” According to Loranger, Cohenour sought out Ellsworth and was informed of one positive COVID-19 case.

“[Cohenour] was not included in discussions about how to handle the positive case or why this positive case led to closing the Capitol when past cases did not,” Loranger wrote. “By the time she was informed, they had already begun disinfecting the building.”

Asked why the Thursday case led to a postponement of floor sessions when past positive tests had not, Ellsworth told MTFP the latest situation involved more contact tracing than previous cases. The confirmation came late in the day, he added, and he wanted to be sure the contact tracer had time to complete her work.

The situation raises broader questions about the postponement’s impacts on the session’s timeline. According to Dylan Klapmeier, communications director for the House Majority, the House was slated to vote on roughly 30 bills on second reading today, and more than 20 bills on third reading. Of the latter, seven were general House bills with Senate amendments, which would have required action Friday to meet a scheduled transmittal deadline. In the Senate, majority communications director Kyle Schmauch said, there were roughly 20 bills scheduled for second reading votes, and about five for third reading. Those votes, and the transmittal deadline, will now carry over to next week. 

Ellsworth said that since neither chamber convened for a floor session Friday, the day will not count against the Legislature’s session schedule. Lawmakers will discuss the situation further this weekend and make a determination about when and how to reconvene next week. 

“If we took a few days off or took whatever amount of days off we need to, we can just come back,” Ellsworth said. “Nobody’s in a hurry. Nobody’s in a rush. We have no deadline per se to meet because if we’re not there, we’re not gaveling in. So our days that we have remaining are still remaining.”

At this stage in the session, Ellsworth said, there’s not much work left for individual committees, but those committees are continuing to work and can still meet and take executive action. He added that House and Senate floor sessions could resume as early as Monday.

Ellsworth did note that since legislators are considered essential workers, those who have been contact traced could still enter the Capitol provided they’re not symptomatic, maintain social distancing and wear masks. He said that lawmakers who are quarantining or feel uncomfortable legislating in person can participate remotely, and those who are not close contacts or have been vaccinated are free to enter the building. However, he stressed that the Legislature is “not going to force anybody to be there.” Ellsworth said he views the response to the situation as an effective and rapid utilization of the protocols lawmakers set down months ago to handle just such a development.

“I don’t think you could ask for a better scenario on how to deal with the situation,” Ellsworth said. “We’re talking about one positive case. But we want to be cautious and certainly don’t want to put the community or any of our workers or any of the staff, any of the legislators in a precarious situation.”

The Legislature updated the situation early Friday evening, with Senate Republican leadership stating via email that the postponement of House and Senate floor sessions will continue through Monday. The email added that lawmakers will participate in Monday committee hearings virtually unless they have technical issues, internet problems or “other extenuating circumstances.” Public testimony in those hearings will be taken exclusively over Zoom.

“Nine legislators, 7 staff, and 2 other individuals received tests through the Legislature’s testing program today. All tested negative,” the email said. “Legislators and others can receive tests at many locations other than the Legislature’s testing program, and many legislators have returned to their districts for the weekend.” The email also stated that fewer than a dozen legislators had been contact traced in relation to the positive COVID-19 case confirmed Thursday.

This story was updated April 16, 2021, to include new information provided by Senate Republican leadership.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.