Special session postponed after COVID-19 outbreak; GOP senators resist wearing masks

In+a+photo+tweeted+by+Gov.+Mike+Parson%2C+Parson+speaks+at+a+Branson+retreat+last+week+to+Missouri+senators+who+were+not+wearing+masks+including%2C+second+from+right%2C+Sen.+Andrew+Koenig%2C+R-Manchester%2C+who+represents+Sunset+Hills%2C+and+third+from+right%2C+Sen.+Paul+Wieland%2C+R-Imperial%2C+who+represents+Arnold.+

In a photo tweeted by Gov. Mike Parson, Parson speaks at a Branson retreat last week to Missouri senators who were not wearing masks including, second from right, Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, who represents Sunset Hills, and third from right, Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, who represents Arnold.

By Rudi Keller, Missouri Independent

COVID-19 cases among members and staff of the Missouri Senate will force it to postpone consideration of an emergency spending bill and pandemic liability protection, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden announced via tweet Monday.

The news was followed a few hours later by Missouri House leaders announcing the annual freshman tour of state government-funded programs, operations and facilities, given as part of new lawmaker orientation, was being postponed indefinitely.

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, who is the sponsor of legislation to increase liability protections for health care providers and employers, said he understood that one senator and two staff members had tested positive for COVID-19.

Rowden issued his tweet after several sources told The Missouri Independent the postponement was coming. A news release issued by Rowden and Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, repeated a portion of Rowden’s tweet and gave no definite date for the Senate to convene.

The Senate had been scheduled to meet Tuesday and planned to hold hearings this week on both bills under consideration in the session that opened Nov. 5.

Now, no action will be taken until at least the first week of December, Rowden tweeted.

“Due to a number of positive COVID-19 cases among members and staff, the Missouri Senate will postpone action related to the special session until after the Thanksgiving holiday,” Rowden wrote. “This decision was not made lightly and, although disruptive, is in the best interest of protecting members, staff, and the public.”

Neither Rowden nor Schatz could be reached for comment.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, said he first heard of a possible outbreak among Republican members over the weekend and has been in contact with Rowden as the situation developed.

“I definitely knew at that point it would probably throw this week’s planned events into flux,” Rizzo said.

Republican members of the Senate were together last week in Branson for a caucus and retreat. They met with Gov. Mike Parson and photos from that meeting show few, if any, members wearing masks. Senators pictured without masks include Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, who represents Sunset Hills, and Paul Wieland, R-Jefferson County, who represents Arnold.

Democratic Senators were scheduled to have orientation meeting with new members this week and those have been postponed to December, Rizzo said.

There are more than 50 new members who will take seats in January in the 163-member Missouri House, including South County’s new representatives Michael Burton in the 92nd District and Bridget Walsh Moore in the 93rd. The bus tour is offered in addition to orientation in the Capitol building, and will be rescheduled some time next year, House Majority Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, said in a news release.

The three days of orientation in Jefferson City will continue as scheduled, Vescovo said.

“I am committed to ensuring our new members will be able to benefit from this incredible educational experience at a future date when we can conduct the tour in a safe and responsible fashion that doesn’t risk further spread of COVID-19,” he said.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the state, with 60,010 cases reported so far this month, more than any other full month since the virus was first identified in the state in March. The Missouri Hospital Association on Friday sent Parson a letter pleading for a mask mandate and warning their ability to treat patients is being overwhelmed by the rapid rise in sickness.

Parson, who has said it is up to Missourians to take personal responsibility for avoiding the virus, was diagnosed with an infection in September, forcing postponement of an election debate.

The Missouri House has already passed the $1.3 billion spending bill sought by Parson that would provide $752 million in new spending authority for federal CARES Act funding, $18.7 million for local agencies working to prevent homelessness and $96 million in child support payments.

There are no rules requiring legislators or staff to wear masks while on the floor, in offices or in committee hearings. Visitors to the Capitol building are given temperature screenings but no masks are required.

That should change, Rizzo said.

“We still struggle with senators who blatantly refuse to wear masks on the floor, in committee hearings and in close proximity to each other,” Rizzo said. “I don’t understand why people are so averse to science.”

The child support funds come from money intercepted from federal stimulus payments, unemployment supplements and tax refunds. With the postponement, some families may be left waiting for money until the emergency spending bill is passed.

Payment were still going on as of Nov. 9 but the creative accounting used to deliver them will be exhausted by the end of the month, state Budget Director Dan Haug told the House Budget Committee that day.

“We can’t send it out to the custodial parents until we get this authority,” Haug said.

The COVID outbreak in the Senate has also caused the cancellation of a hearing scheduled for Thursday of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Check back later for more on this developing story from the Missouri Independent.

Gov. Mike Parson tweeted this photo of himself without a mask speaking to a group of mostly maskless Republican senators last week, including Sen. Andrew Koenig and Sen. Paul Wieland.