(TNS) — When the Indiana General Assembly begins its 2021 session in January, everyone will be required to wear masks. Everyone that is, but the lawmakers.
The Indiana House voted along party lines Tuesday, the ceremonial first day of the session, against forcing lawmakers to don facemasks.
Democrats said it's an easy way to keep everyone safer from catching COVID-19, which has killed more than 4,700 Hoosiers. Republicans, who have supermajorities in each chamber, said they believe lawmakers should wear masks, but won't mandate them. Republicans point out they've taken other steps for safety, including social distancing.
The decision came as state health officials reported the highest number of deaths in a single day during the surging coronavirus pandemic this fall and as Gov. Eric Holcomb quarantines after his security detail tested positive. It's also despite Holcomb's order that all other Hoosiers must wear masks when in public. That order, Holcomb has said, does not include lawmakers because they "rule their roost."
Democrats are worried the legislative session will become a superspreader event. In January, hundreds of lobbyists, staff, members of the public and media will descend daily on the Statehouse and nearby buildings for the 5-month legislative session. It's not uncommon for many to be shoulder-to-shoulder for hours in hallways and meeting rooms.
"Masks protect you, they protect me, they protect all of the folks you interact with," said Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D- Fort Wayne, "including the staff, the public and the media."
Rep. Ed Delaney, D- Indianapolis, said some lawmakers and some of their family members have underlying conditions that put them more at risk of dying from COVID-19. He said his family implored him not to attend the session.
"If we shut down because we play this game and become a hot spot," he said, "we will not have done our job."
Speaker Todd Huston, R- Fishers, and Majority Floor Leader Matt Lehman, R- Berne, said they've made it clear to their caucus that everyone should wear a mask.
"I don't want to go down a path where for your individual actions I can bring you on the House floor and censure you," Lehman said. "Right now that's reserved for the most heinous things, that you don't do your duty."
The vast majority of the 150 lawmakers did wear masks, including every senator. When the House met, two Republicans declined to wear masks.
Rep. Curt Nisly, R- Milford, and Rep. John Jacob, R- Indianapolis, each have criticized Holcomb's mask mandate and neither wore masks Tuesday.
"I think there's a lot of false narrative related to COVID," Jacob said. "I believe it's a real virus, however the extent of it has been totally spun out of control."
Both the Senate and the House chambers were closed to the public. Lawmakers were spread out in every other chair, into areas usually used by staff and media and into upper-floor balconies usually reserved for the public.
Huston and Senate Majority Leader Rod Bray each addressed their chambers briefly behind pieces of clear plastic affixed to or near the chamber podiums, taking their masks off to do so. They were each at least 6 feet from other lawmakers and staff when they removed their masks.
Other lawmakers who addressed their colleagues spoke from podiums near the front of the chambers. They kept on their masks while they spoke.
In January, the Senate will continue to meet in its Statehouse Chamber. The House will move its meetings to a larger space in an adjacent state government building.
Lawmakers will book larger rooms for committee hearings, including at the adjacent government buildings. Members of the public will testify on legislation virtually.
It's not clear at this point whether or how often lawmakers and others will be tested. Huston and Bray, at this time, aren't planning to notify the public if lawmakers test positive. They said that's an individual decision for each lawmaker.
It's also unclear how many lawmakers or staff could test positive before a shutdown would be necessitated. Huston and Bray said those details are being worked out.
Lawmakers To-do List
Lawmakers have to pass a new two-year budget and they want to approve bills to kick start the economy, help Hoosiers stay healthy during the pandemic and redistrict their own seats and congressional seats with 2020 Census data.
They seem especially interested in fast tracking a bill that offers liability protections for businesses if employers or customers catch COVID-19.
"We remain committed to funding critical services while continuing to invest in key priorities like education, broadband and public health, especially as it relates to the pandemic," Huston said. "We will also focus on further reducing health care costs, increasing educational opportunities, supporting liability protections for businesses and passing a long-term energy plan."
Senate Democrats say they are focused on finding a more nonpartisan approach to redistricting. Following the 2010 Census, Republicans drew maps that have led the GOP to control 7 of 9 congressional seats, have a 71-29 majority in the House and a 38-11 majority in the Indiana Senate.
Results from statewide races suggest they should control roughly 55 percent of those seats. Republicans, though, have shown little interest in handing over control of redistricting, saying the law places it firmly in the hands of the legislature. And they control the legislature.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D- Indianapolis, said he will file a bill to set standards to ensure districts are drawn fairly, including making them compact, preventing cities and towns from being split and following school district boundaries.
“My caucus has been fighting to get redistricting reform on the books for over a decade now,” Taylor said. “While we have been persistent in our efforts to put an end to partisan gerrymandering, we have been road blocked each year by the Republican supermajority."
Lawmakers return Jan. 4.
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