Montana Official says Lawmakers Should Caucus Remotely

Lewis and Clark County health officer makes request as more than half of Montana cases and deaths have occurred since October

By Associated Press

A public health officer in Montana has recommended that local lawmakers participate remotely in upcoming caucuses and orientations.

“This request comes as the state of Montana as well as Lewis and Clark County are experiencing a sharp increase in daily COVID-19 case incidence, hospitals are stretched beyond capacity to serve our communities and we are losing our neighbors, friends and family to this disease,” Lewis and Clark County Health Officer Drenda Niemann wrote in a letter to legislators Monday.

The meetings scheduled to begin Wednesday at the Capitol building are where party leadership is selected and orientation takes place.

More than half of Montana’s 48,000 coronavirus cases have occurred since October, and more than half of the state’s 522 deaths have occurred since October as well.

Susan Fox, the executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said Monday that roughly 100 lawmakers out of 150 have indicated they would attend some part of the events in-person. But that number is still in flux, Fox said.

Most of the legislative staff will be working remotely, though there will still be a staff member in each of the caucus rooms, Fox said.

CareHere, the state employee health center, will do temperature checks for each person who enters the building, Fox said.

The meetings have been moved to larger physical spaces to allow for more distance between attendees, Fox said.

Members of the media and members of the public will have space in the House and Senate galleries, Fox said.

Social distancing and face coverings will be mandated for everyone in the building. But enforcement of coronavirus-related protocol ultimately falls on the shoulders of party leadership, Fox said.

“We don’t really have that authority over them,” Fox said.

Earlier this year Republican legislators met in the Capitol for an interim meeting without wearing face coverings a day after outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock issued a mask mandate.

Democratic Sen. J.P. Pomnichowski said Monday that the majority of Senate Democrats plan to caucus remotely Wednesday.

Several Republican legislators who have either held or are seeking leadership positions did not return calls Monday from the Independent Record asking how many people in their caucuses planned to attend the meetings in-person.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.