No current plan for next meeting of legislative COVID-19 panel

Helena business community frustrated with maskless legislators

By: - February 9, 2021 2:52 pm

Helena, Montana, United States, North America

There are no imminent plans for the Legislature’s COVID-19 panel to meet again “unless we have a situation in which we need to act on something quickly,” the committee’s chair, Sen. Jason Ellsworth, told the Daily Montanan.

The panel, tasked with adopting rules for handling the virus at the Capitol and responding to positive cases, met for the second and most recent time on January 14, when Democratic leadership proposed several amendments — which ultimately failed — to mandate that lawmakers wear masks in staff work areas and to establish paid sick leave for quarantining session staffers.

“I think we’ve addressed everything in the panel that can be addressed,” Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, said Tuesday. “We’ve come up with the solutions in the panel.”

Those solutions include contracting with Lewis and Clark County to hire a contact tracer who most recently kicked into action when Rep. Brian Putnam, R-Kalispell, announced his positive diagnosis this weekend, the third lawmaker to do so. Putnam is taking a PCR test in order to verify the result of his rapid test, Ellsworth said.

“There are no issues within the Capitol.”

But not everyone within the Capitol community is convinced.

This morning, Lewis and Clark health officer Drenda Niemann sent an email to legislative leadership informing them that the county had received several complaints from Helena-area business owners “concerned regarding actions of some legislators.”

“Reports include entering businesses without a face covering and disregard for business staff’s polite requests to don a mask while in the business per state directive and local rule,” Niemann wrote. She requested that leadership “communicate clear expectations to the broader legislative body that both state and local rules are followed when patronizing business in this community.”

Kyle Schmauch, a spokesman for the Senate GOP, said that Ellsworth spoke to Niemann, who could not identify which lawmakers had caused the alleged complaints or at which businesses.

“Ellsworth gave Drenda his personal cell phone number so she can reach out to him directly if/when there are any specific issues that can be addressed,” Schmauch said. “Legislators are aware of the public health rules in Lewis & Clark County and Ellsworth plans to make a general announcement on the Senate floor today reminding members.”

The lack of recent action on the COVID panel has left Democratic leadership to throw up their hands.

“What COVID panel?” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, joked during a press conference Tuesday.

“We have tried to push amendments, but what we’ve gotten is stonewalled,” said Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour. “We’ve backed off, this is going to be their show from now on.”

Abbott said she received a phone call from Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, ahead of the press release announcing Putnam’s diagnosis, as was the case with the previous two positive cases, Reps. David Bedey and Fiona Nave.

Beyond that, however, Democrats say they’re not clear on how the Legislature should proceed as the virus continues. More than 1,300 Montanans have died of COVID.

“My frustration is still over a lack of a clear transparent plan that everyone has,” Abbott said.


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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.