By Sean Scully and States Newsroom Staff
As Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney walked the halls of the Kansas Statehouse on opening day of the legislative session this month, she was taken aback by what she saw.
In the hallways, where “people are chatting and hugging and all that stuff, there were probably less than half of the people wearing masks … You definitely wouldn’t have known that we were in a surge, that outside the world of the Capitol there was a crisis going on in our health care system,” said Bacani McKenney, a family physician from Fredonia, Kansas, serving as the volunteer doctor in the Statehouse for the first two days of the new session.
At that moment, Kansas, like most of the country, was seeing a sharp spike in coronavirus cases, driven by the new omicron variant. New cases in the first week of January jumped to a seven-day average of more than 6,500 per day in the state, up from a summer low of only around 100 cases per day.
The scene is much the same in the Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg.
After months of vigilance, masks in the 116-year-old building largely have vanished, and there is a markedly partisan divide between lawmakers and staff who do choose to wear a face-covering and those who do not. As it has through much of the pandemic, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has reverted to appealing to the better angels of state residents to get them to comply with public health measures. The retreat to that strategy came after the majority-progressive Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the administration’s school mask mandate.
Across the nation, legislatures and their committees are gathering for the annual ritual of the legislative session, which in most states takes up the early months of the year. Unlike recent years, however, when masks and social distancing were common, if not the explicit rule, in many states you’d hardly know that we were entering the third year of a pandemic.
- In Idaho, where cases are spiking and the population is among the least vaccinated in the nation, Gov. Brad Little delivered the annual State of the State address in-person to a joint session of the Legislature this month. The vast majority of the state’s 105 legislators did not wear masks or maintain social distance. In 2021, Little delivered the speech remotely due to COVID-19 concerns, and legislators reconfigured many of the committee hearing rooms to reduce seating capacity and spread seats out.
- In Nebraska, most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. Plastic barriers, used last year to separate senators on the legislative floor, have been removed. The Republican-controlled unicameral legislature has never required state senators to wear masks. About a dozen of the 49 senators are wearing masks voluntarily this year, fewer than in 2020 and 2021. State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, Speaker of the Legislature, said most restrictions were imposed before vaccines became available. Now, he said, the Legislature is “returning to normal.”
- In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds began the legislative session with a wide-ranging, 45-minute Condition of the State speech. Reynolds mentioned “the pandemic” three times, in passing. She did not use the word COVID, nor did she advocate for vaccinations, mitigation measures or any other changes in state COVID policy. Legislators crowded the Iowa House chamber to watch Reynolds’ address on Jan. 11. Most Democrats wore face coverings, either cloth masks or N-95s, while the majority of Republicans chose not to wear one.
- In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled General Assembly spent months sparring with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration over its pandemic management policies. In 2021, frustrated by Wolf’s veto pen, Republicans successfully pushed through a constitutional amendment limiting the emergency powers of Wolf and his eventual successors. The York County Democrat will leave office in January 2023 after having served the constitutional maximum of two, four-year terms. Even so, the pandemic has continued to rage in the Keystone State. As of Monday, 74.9 percent of Pennsylvanians age 18 or older have been fully vaccinated, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported. Through Tuesday, the Health Department of Health more than 2 million cases of COVID-19 in the commonwealth since the start of the pandemic and more than 38,000 deaths, according to state data.
Even in states where COVID-19 protections do remain in place, the issue has exposed a sharp partisan divide and provoked unrest among legislators.
So what’s going on?
The divergent and often contentious approaches to statehouse coronavirus rules are a small but largely predictable pattern of sectarianism that has emerged in many parts of American life, says Michael Bugeja, a professor at Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication and a columnist at the Iowa Capital Dispatch and other media outlets. It has manifested itself in fights over voting rights, school curricula, library books, even the very facts of public political events.
“We are now in an era where one side hates the other side more than they love their own side, and that defines sectarianism … everything has become politicized,” he said.
Bugeja was careful not to take sides in the legislative disputes, but observed that the very act of wearing or not wearing a mask has become a performative display to demonstrate which team one aligns with — a prerequisite of sectarianism.
The statehouse battle is “one small symptom of a very large divide that has been introduced by technology, by social media, by the lack of news, news taken out of context, by Twitter, by screen time, by politicians, even by our own families,” he said.
Divide is clear in many statehouses
In Oregon, where legislators are meeting in person but masks are required for everyone, Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney told Sen. Dallas Heard, the chair of the Oregon Republican Party, that he was barred from returning to the Capitol until he wore a mask.
“Assuming the (statewide) mask mandate still exists, we will have to move against individuals who don’t have a mask and have them expelled from the floor,” Courtney said in December. “I want no part of that, I don’t like it, but that’s the situation we’re in.”
In Virginia, the Republican caucus in the House of Delegates celebrated their return to control of the chamber this month by pointedly showing up unmasked and voting as a bloc to overturn most pandemic rules instituted by the previous Democratic leadership.
“There’s less restrictions now, according to the Republican plan, to get on the floor of the General Assembly than there are to walk into most coffee shops,” outgoing Democratic Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn told the Virginia Mercury. “It’s shocking.
In New Jersey, where dominant Democrats are requiring proof of vaccination for everyone entering the Capitol, including legislators, a group of Republican lawmakers attempted to push past guards posted to check the status of those entering during a session in December.
“First it’s us, then it’s you. We’re going to stand strong, stand together, and we’re going to fight this thing,” said then-Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Holmdel, to a group of anti-vaccine protestors afterward.
Arizona this year decided to do away with virtually all of the strict precautions that were in place in the 2021 session. Neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate will require masks. Plastic shields that had been constructed around lawmakers’ desks have been dismantled, and there will be no social distancing requirements.
“Our goal is business as usual, with a few additions,” said Kim Quintero, a spokeswoman for Senate President Karen Fann and the Senate Republican caucus.
It wasn’t always like this.
Early action on pandemic
The pandemic hit the U.S. hard in March and April of 2020, just as many legislatures were in the middle or toward the end of their annual sessions.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, at least 36 legislatures enacted emergency changes in 2020, including limiting access to the capitol and allowing for remote voting and remote participation by the public in hearings. In 2021, at least 30 legislatures continued those measures.
The legislative season in 2022 is too young for a clear picture of how widespread the retreat from such emergency measures may be, but it’s clear that the partisan temperature is much higher this year than in either previous pandemic year.
“We have in effect pulled into two different camps with two different views of reality. … In many ways, the data around vaccines, masks and all these things is kind of bearing out as a proxy for the role of government,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told the Associated Press this month.