By ADAM BEAM Associated Press
All but one of the Republicans in the California Senate were barred from the state Capitol on Thursday after they were exposed to the coronavirus, prompting unprecedented changes that will allow them to vote via video conference from their homes as the Legislature rushes to complete its work by Monday’s deadline.
Republicans were furious, with state Sen. Jim Nielsen — the only one of 11 Republicans allowed in the 40-seat chamber — demanding the Legislature shut down until his colleagues could be tested and cleared to return. Republicans in general have opposed remote voting, arguing it is not allowed under the state Constitution.
“I don’t care what bills we’ve got before us, none could possibly be that important,” Nielsen said. “Here we’re talking about bills dying. But through exposure, we’re talking about humans dying.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a Democrat, said the Senate did not have time to wait. Lawmakers cannot pass bills after midnight Monday unless Gov. Gavin Newsom calls them into a special session.
Dozens of high-profile measures are pending, including police reform proposals filed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and a proposal to extend eviction protections for people who cannot pay their rent because of the pandemic.
“Our clock is running out,” Atkins said. “We have work to do.”
The Senate abruptly canceled its session on Wednesday after Republican state Sen. Brian Jones confirmed he had tested positive for the virus. Jones was on the Senate floor Monday with his colleagues, but he followed Senate rules by wearing a mask and staying at least 6 feet away from his colleagues.
On Tuesday, however, Jones attended a Republican caucus lunch where 10 of the 11 members sat around a large conference table and removed their mask to eat, according to Republican state Sen. John Moorlach.
Senate Republicans were scheduled to be tested for the coronavirus later Thursday.
“I feel frustrated obviously that I’m prepared and ready to go but I’m being asked not to, so what else can I say,” said Moorlach, adding that he has no symptoms of the disease,
The Legislature has already been delayed twice, once in March at the start of the pandemic and again in July after at least seven people who work at the Capitol — including two lawmakers — tested positive for the virus. Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey was briefly hospitalized.
This latest outbreak also includes a California Highway Patrol officer who works in the Capitol. The officer was last in the building on Tuesday but had no contact with senators or their staff members, according to a memo from Secretary of the Senate Erika Contreras.
Anyone entering the Capitol from the public entrances must be screened for symptoms, including temperature checks. But those screenings did not apply to lawmakers and staff, who usually enter the building from the parking garage.
Legislative leaders had asked lawmakers and staff to “self screen” at home and not to come to work if they have symptoms. That changed Thursday, with everyone entering the building now required to go through the screening process.