OKLAHOMA CITY — Concerns are mounting that Oklahoma’s state Capitol could become a COVID-19 superspreader site as the Legislature prepares to convene with no apparent mask enforcement for visitors or legislators.
Democratic lawmakers said they, some Capitol employees and visitors are understandably nervous about the annual four-month session that traditionally draws thousands of Oklahomans each week from across the state.
They said that even as the COVID-19 death toll grows, a raging debate continues in the halls of the Statehouse over the efficacy of face coverings and other COVID-19 precautions designed to slow the spread of the deadly virus.
If lawmakers can’t agree to follow basic COVID-19 safety precautions, then medical professionals and observers said the Capitol could cause massive coronavirus outbreaks that quickly spread to all corners of the state as millions of Oklahomans wait for access to a vaccine.
“If we can’t even get to that basic point of everyone wearing a mask, then I think the Capitol has huge potential to be a superspreader event, and it’s unfortunate because not only would it be a superspreader event at the Capitol, but it also would mean that representatives and senators would go back to their districts on Thursdays and potentially spread it to their constituents as well,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman.
There’s been a push to vaccinate state lawmakers ahead of the start of the Feb. 1 session, but Virgin said legislators must still wear facial coverings and social distance because science is still unclear on whether it’s possible to contract COVID-19 and infect others after being vaccinated.
Capitol security officers and employees older than 65 also have been offered the vaccine, but hundreds of other people who work full time in the building and have frequent public contact — such as legislative staffers, media and custodial staff — have not.
“I think that everyone in that building needs to be vaccinated if it’s going to fully open during the legislative session,” Virgin said. “Unfortunately, I don’t make those decisions, and the vaccine supply from the federal government is still slower than expected.”
Keith Reed, deputy commissioner with the State Department of Health, said the focus has been on vaccinating legislators.
“Any additional staff at the Capitol that are being vaccinated are either directly tied to the current priority groups or someone deemed critical to the operation of the Capitol,” he said. “At this time, (we’re) not aware of anyone identified in the latter category, but the agency has expressed a need to vaccinate those that are necessary to ensure Capitol business would continue without interruption by COVID-19.”
Dr. Jean Hausheer, past president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said the likelihood of a COVID-19 superspreader event depends on how the legislators behave.
“If they wash their hands, if they physically distance, if they wear a mask that covers their nose and if they get vaccinated, then we are rocking and good to go,” she said. “Some may not buy into some of these mitigation measures, but they all matter.”
Among visitors, Hausheer said there should be similar rules and expectations to avoid illness. Also, anyone feeling sick needs to stay home.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers refused to wear face coverings at the legislative organizational day earlier this month despite a Republican legislative mandate that all individuals inside the state building must wear face coverings over their mouths and noses when social distancing isn’t possible. Visitors and some state employees also continue to roam hallways in groups without face coverings.
State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said many members of the Republican caucus believe it’s unreasonable to require hand washing, social distancing and masking.
Republicans hold majorities in both chambers, so they will largely be responsible for developing the coronavirus protocols during the session. In January, Democrats proposed mask mandates for legislators, but Republicans soundly rejected the plan.
Just two days after rejecting a measure requiring masks and social distancing protocols, The Associated Press reported that the Missouri House was forced to cancel its session for a week after a lawmaker reported testing positive for COVID-19. There were also additional reported cases among lawmakers and others.
Nationwide, the AP reported at least 280 cases among state lawmakers, including 13 in Missouri.
While other state Capitols have installed plastic dividers between desks to ensure social distancing in tight spaces, Oklahoma has not, Nichols said.
“There’s a lot of folks on the Republican side of the aisle who will carry on as though nothing is going on, which is really dangerous for not only those of us serving, but everybody working in the building, everybody who comes and visits the building and everybody else those folks come into contact with,” Nichols said.
He said Oklahomans should be “incredibly concerned” that the Capitol will cause COVID-19 outbreaks across the state over the next four months.
“I’d absolutely be concerned going to the Capitol,” he said.
A spokesman for the House Republican caucus referred all comments to John Estus, a spokesman for House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
Estus said the House would be announcing COVID-19 protocols before the start of the session.
Earlier this year, he said the Capitol mask rule doesn’t apply to lawmakers the same way it does to state employees or visitors. Lawmakers are accountable to their constituents.
Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for state Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who serves as president pro tem, said the Senate is still working internally on its protocols. They hope to have them finalized before the start of the session.
“We’re doing all we can to protect the health and safety of the public that may visit and the staff and senators who work here every day,” Cooper said.
Tom Dunning, with the Oklahoma Employees Association, said his group hasn’t weighed in on the Capitol COVID-19 precautions but said if lawmakers are being vaccinated, every employee who works in that building should be vaccinated in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“The legislative assistants have the most direct contact with the public of anybody who works there,” he said.
He also said everyone inside the Capitol needs to be masked.
“When it’s hunting season, a lot of these legislators go hunting, and they all wear orange hats because it’s a requirement to wear a percentage of orange,” he said. “That’s a requirement and rule of law that they abide by. How is that different than wearing a mask when you go to work at the people’s house to keep people safe?”