After voting not to require masks, Missouri House shuts down due to COVID-19 outbreak

Rep.+Jim+Murphy%2C+R-Oakville%2C+pictured+above%2C+and+Rep.+David+Gregory%2C+R-Sunset+Hills%2C+hosted+a+food+distribution+event+at+Mehlville+High+School+in+September.+

Photo by Erin Achenbach

Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Oakville, pictured above, and Rep. David Gregory, R-Sunset Hills, hosted a food distribution event at Mehlville High School in September.

By Rudi Keller, Missouri Independent

The Missouri House of Representatives is not meeting this week because of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Capitol Building, Republican leaders announced Thursday evening.

Without giving details, House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, and Majority Floor Leader Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis, issued a statement about the decision.

The Senate Republican caucus, which has 24 of the Senate’s 34 members, met Friday morning on a conference call and decided to hold session next week, Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, wrote in a tweet on Friday

The week was already scheduled for limited floor sessions. Lawmakers generally meet Monday through Thursday each week, but both chambers were returning Tuesday because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The House schedule also had only what is known as a technical session set for Wednesday, when President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated and federal officials have warned of possible unrest in Washington and state capitals.

“Due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the building, we are exercising an abundance of caution to protect members, staff, and visitors by canceling session next week,” they said. “Our goal is to return to work the following week.”

The House is still organizing itself in the new General Assembly. Vescovo appointed committee chairs Jan. 12, but rank-and-file members have not yet received their assignments. 

The Senate is further along with its organization and several bills are scheduled for hearings, including COVID liability protection for businesses and expansion of virtual learning.

During a House floor session Wednesday, large numbers of members, mainly on the Republican side, could be seen without masks. And while signs outside elevators state that the maximum occupancy is three to allow social distancing, members returning to the floor from a caucus crowded in.

During debate on the House rules Jan. 12, the chamber voted 46-105 against requiring members to follow Centers for Disease Control guidance for controlling the coronavirus, including wearing masks. Among South County legislators, those voting “no” were David Gregory, R-Sunset Hills; Jim Murphy, R-Oakville; Michael O’Donnell, R-Oakville; and Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold. Those voting “yes” were Democrats Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury; Bridget Walsh Moore, D-Affton; and Michael Burton, D-Lakeshire. 

During that session, 11 members were absent for roll call votes, including several who have tested positive or are in quarantine due to exposure. There are two Democratic members of the Missouri Senate who are in quarantine for exposure to the virus.

In a tweet Wednesday morning, state Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, said that she is one of those in quarantine.

“I am in isolation due to exposure to COVID-19,” she wrote. “I will not be in #moleg until I test negative and complete the appropriate quarantine time period.”

When the pandemic first hit the state last March, the General Assembly shut down for several weeks, returning in time to pass a budget and a few must-pass bills. During the summer and fall, Gov. Mike Parson called lawmakers to work in two special sessions, the first to work on anti-crime legislation and the second to appropriate unspent federal disaster aid.

The spike in COVID-19 cases that occurred in late October and November forced the Senate to delay consideration of the spending bill, which also scuttled Parson’s effort to add liability protection to the special session agenda.