Third Pa. legislator this week tests positive for COVID-19, as Capitol rethinks pandemic-era swearing-in

By: - December 10, 2020 3:03 pm

Members of the Pennsylvania House walk to a ceremony at Grace Methodist Church in Harrisburg, Pa. on Sept. 28, 2020 (Capital-Star photo).

For the third time this week, a Pennsylvania state lawmaker has tested positive for COVID-19, affirming the concerns of some legislators that the chamber is not taking the pandemic seriously.

State Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, announced his condition in a press release Thursday morning. He added that he is currently isolating at home, experiencing “mild, cold-like symptoms.”

“With the promising news of an effective vaccine on the horizon, it is my hope that we can, as one Pennsylvania family, work together to finally end the terrible impact the COVID-19 virus has wrought on our families and our Commonwealth,” Yudichak said in a statement.

Yudichak is the 11th state legislator to test positive since March, though all but two of the documented cases have been since Oct. 1.

Of the positive cases, three legislators have been diagnosed within the last four days, including Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, on Monday and Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Berks, Wednesday.

The General Assembly has not convened since before Thanksgiving, meaning it is unlikely the cases are related. 

But the rise in cases still emphasized concerns among some Democrats that lawmaking amid the pandemic is unsafe, especially as dozens of Republicans still refuse to wear a mask.

The House and Senate must meet again on the first Tuesday of the new year — Jan. 5, 2021 — to be sworn in under the state constitution. That means lawmakers must return to the Capitol and their spacious but indoors chambers to recite their oath of office.

Preparations for the big day are already underway in at least one chamber. 

In a memo sent to members of the House on Dec. 3, House Speaker Bryan Cutler said that instead of packing all 203 members of the House onto the floor at the same time, lawmakers would be sworn in in groups of 50 or so.

“Specific groupings are still being finalized, as are other details regarding swearing-in day,” Cutler spokesperson Mike Straub said in an email.

The chamber is also cutting down on the number of guests allowed to attend swearing in.

A handful of Democrats have asked for every member who does not wear a mask to be sworn in together, according to the Associated Press. Ideally, they would be sworn in at the end of the ceremony after all other lawmakers have taken the oath. House Democratic spokesperson Bill Patton confirmed that the swearing in has “been a topic of discussion among the members.”

“I’m emphatically in support of corralling anti-maskers so they do not hurt or kill other people needlessly,” Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, added to the Capital-Star.

Last month, another Philadelphia Democrat, Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, filed a public health complaint over her Republican colleagues’ refusal to wear masks.

Under House rules adopted by a bipartisan management committee, all staff and lawmakers are required to wear a mask. But lawmakers may provide a written note to be exempt from the policy, and the repercussions for breaking the policy are unclear.

The Capitol reopens Monday, and visitors must wear masks. Will House lawmakers?

Even with the policy in place, lawmakers and staff regularly show up to committee meetings and the House floor without a face covering.

It’s not just legislators testing positive. Gov. Tom Wolf also announced he tested positive Wednesday. His wife, First Lady Frances Wolf, announced she had tested negative Thursday.

The surge in cases among Pennsylvania’s political class matches a surge in cases across the state and country. Pennsylvania’s seven day average of new cases is at more than 9,900 a day, according to data crunched by Spotlight PA. 

More than 5,800 people are hospitalized with the disease, and 1,100 of those individuals are in intensive care units. So far, more than 12,000 Pennsylvanians have died.

Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Wolf, said in an email that Wolf continues to feel well and experience no symptoms.

Everyone who met close contact definitions has been informed, Kensinger added, including Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine and several senior staff members. All have so far tested negative as they quarantine.

Kensinger said that several members of Wolf’s security team also tested positive for COVID-19, and contact tracing is still underway. 

“No one is immune from COVID and that even with strict adherence to safety measures, it is still possible to contract the virus,” Kensinger said. “That doesn’t mean that we should give up, but rather double our efforts to wear a mask, stay home, and work together to stop the spread of this virus.”

Wolf is scheduled to speak at a digital press conference on COVID-19 at 4 p.m. Thursday.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.