Maskless lawmakers risk people’s lives in the People’s House

Reckless Republicans are a COVID hazard at the special session

Republican state Rep. Dave Williams speaking during the Colorado special legislative session, on Nov. 30, 2020. (Screenshot from The Colorado Channel)

The Colorado Legislature convened an extraordinary session Monday to enact relief for desperate families and businesses facing pandemic-related disaster.

If Coloradans hoped the gravity of this once-in-a-century crisis would inspire their elected representatives to approach their duties with solemn thoughtfulness, they expected too much from Republican office-holders. Many members of the GOP caucus did not wear masks as they participated in the session on the floor of the House and Senate chambers. One Republican lawmaker even mocked face-covering guidelines by strapping a mask over the top of his head.

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How has society become so divided that state leaders would risk people’s lives in the People’s House? How could simple public health guidelines become so misused in service of partisan warfare? How could anyone, let alone elected officials sworn to serve the best interests of the public, be so cavalier toward another person’s health?

The Legislature is in session to discuss matters of life and death. As of Monday, the coronavirus had killed 2,656 Coloradans. The state is in its greatest peril since the start of the pandemic. More than 13,000 Coloradans are hospitalized with the disease, and some hospitals are already reaching their capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. Every day since Nov. 12 more than an average 4,000 people in the state learned they’ve been infected. The disease has ravaged the economy, and an increasing number of families are facing eviction or foreclosure and small businesses are facing failure if they haven’t already closed. Two members of the Colorado congressional delegation have been infected. The governor announced he tested positive only two days before the special session began.

Every aspect of Colorado society is enduring a coronavirus-related crisis, and the special session was necessitated by this emergency, yet that very emergency was compounded by Republicans who showed up maskless at the Capitol. There is no debate about the capacity of face coverings to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in September that if Americans wore face masks for several weeks the country “would bring this pandemic under control.” But “numerous” Republicans on Monday were not wearing masks in the House, reported Meghan Lopez of the Denver Channel. Alex Burness of The Denver Post reported that “about half the Colorado Senate Republicans” were maskless. Rep. Cathy Kipp tweeted a widely-shared photo of Republican Rep. Larry Liston wearing a mask on the top of his head. “Not wearing a mask (is) one thing, mocking it like this or coming across the aisle maskless to greet your colleagues is just offensive,” Kipp wrote.

Perhaps the most alarming example of Republican carelessness with the lives of colleagues involved a GOP House staffer who recently tested positive for COVID-19 yet not only went to the Capitol on Monday but was seen wearing her mask below her nose. She was kicked out. “This was a reckless breach of the House’s safety protocols, and it will not be tolerated,” said Speaker KC Becker in a statement about the incident. “The minority’s dangerous disregard for simple and effective protections and this staffer’s presence on the floor has placed the health of every lawmaker and member of staff at risk.” 

Democratic leaders, who are in the majority in both legislative chambers, have stipulated that masks should be worn at all times throughout the Capitol. But it’s not a mandate. Capitol safety protocols rely on the willingness of legislators to honor them. They depend on the decency of lawmakers. This was too much to ask of Republicans. Too many elected members of the Colorado GOP went out of their way to demonstrate their rank indecency. They put lives at risk — the lives of colleagues, the lives of Capitol staff, the lives of journalists, and the lives of members of the public. They have earned the ire of their constituents.

Conservatives for months have chafed at mask mandates and other public health restrictions, rejecting, in the facile name of “freedom,” the advice of experts and the wisdom of science. Such willful ignorance is harmful enough when it’s exhibited in a tweet. But now it takes the form of walking hazards in the halls of the Capitol. The Legislature is in session to combat the destructive presence of the pandemic, but Republican mask-deniers in the Legislature are themselves a malign presence in the special session.

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