HELENA – Republicans and Democrats clashed Monday over contrasting visions for how to hold Montana’s upcoming legislative session safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans, who hold majorities in both the house and the senate, voiced support for forming a leadership panel that would make decisions on safety precautions once the session begins, eliciting concern from Democrats that the session would exacerbate the existing public health crisis that has strained Helena health care providers.
Democrats want to decide on a plan of action before the session begins Jan. 4 and offered three different proposals: postpone the session until a vaccine is widely available, hold the session remotely, or implement mandatory safety measures that would include mask wearing, social distancing, and a regular COVID-19 testing program.
All were met with opposition or skepticism from Republicans during a hearing of the joint house and senate rules committee.
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, chair of the House Rules Committee, came down strongly against any effort to hold the session entirely remotely. Skees claimed the state is heading towards herd immunity.
Herd immunity refers to the concept that people can become immune to certain viruses after surviving infection or being vaccinated. Typically, at least 70% of a population must be immune to achieve herd immunity. Montana health officials have reported 68,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, or about 7% of the state’s population, though reported cases don’t account for people who may have had the virus but haven’t been tested.
How long immunity lasts varies depending on the virus, and it’s not yet known how long COVID-19 survivors might have that protection.
“Herd immunity is not a strategy for protecting the health and safety of Montanans,” said Sen. Jill Cohenour, a Democrat from Helena who is a chemist in the Department of Public Health and Human Services. “People will die to get us to herd immunity.”
The Republican-backed proposal would form a panel made of legislative leadership – six Republicans and two Democrats – who would have the authority to make decisions on the legislature’s COVID-19 protocols during the session. Legislators would be able to participate remotely if they chose to, with the permission of their caucus leaders.
The proposal did not include any specific requirements for masks, social distancing, or following other public health protocols, eliciting criticism from Democrats.
“I’m just deeply concerned about this concept of COVID being fluid,” said Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. “There’s not going to be magically a day when it goes away. So I’m concerned about a committee that is just going to be reactionary.”
Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, whose tribe was hit hard by the pandemic, slammed Republicans for talking about the pandemic “abstractly.”
“Are we above the law? Are we above social expectation? I hope not,” she said.
Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from Billings, decried the use of masks, saying that “facts and science differ based on whatever Facebook lets you see.”
“We have kowtowed to you all to give you the opportunity to be remote and be safe if you feel you need to be, and you’re going to argue about these amendments? It’s ridiculous,” Usher said, addressing the Democrats in the room, who were all wearing masks.
Some Democratic committee members participated in the meeting virtually. Among Republican committee members, several wore masks while most did not.
“Do what your constituents want you to do, because I can tell you my constituents laugh if I bring up masks in the room,” Usher said.
The joint rules committee will meet again Tuesday morning to determine which proposals will move forward for a final vote, which will take place Dec. 16. The new rules will be formally adopted when the full legislature convenes in early January.
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