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The partisan divide at the Minnesota Capitol now extends to mask-wearing

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman and others on the dais in the Minnesota House wearing masks on Thursday.

It isn’t a hard rule of thumb, but it is correct far more often than it isn’t these days: the first way to tell whether someone at the Minnesota Legislature is Republican or a DFLer is whether you can see their faces.

Mask-wearing at the statehouse — as in other parts of the United States — has become a partisan preference, with DFLers far more likely to wear face coverings than Republicans. 

The difference extends to legislative staffers, and is most visible to anyone watching the floor sessions via the Legislature’s livestream: the staff running the DFL-controlled House are mostly masked up; the staff operating the GOP-controlled Senate are not.

The divide goes back to the first session day following the unprecedented March shutdown of the Legislature. On the first day back, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman wore a mask, as did House Chief Clerk Patrick Murphy, during the hours-long session.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Sen. Jeremy Miller, the Republican from Winona who presides as president of the Senate, and Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman, have gone sans-mask throughout. Since the announcement this week that a GOP staff member has tested positive for COVID-19, however, use by Senate staff on the floor has increased.

But the partisan divide has mostly continued, with the handful of lawmakers who sit on the House and Senate floors during session following the pattern, with DFLers wearing masks and GOP lawmakers not. Thursday, Kent wore a mask while Gazelka did not, Majority Leader Ryan Winkler has been wearing a mask while Minority Leader Kurt Daudt has not.

Sen. Jeremy Miller, presiding as president of the Senate sans-mask.
Senate Media Services
Sen. Jeremy Miller, presiding as president of the Senate sans-mask.
That’s not to say the House and Senate haven’t made changes to procedure due to COVID-19. Both bodies approved rule changes to allow teleconference committee meetings and to allow some members to vote remotely during floor sessions.

And for days when they have been in session, a rare occurrence since March 16 but one that’s becoming more frequent as the Legislature approaches adjournment on May 18, both the House and Senate have implemented new seating arrangements and voting protocols to lessen personal contact. 

The lawmakers who take seats on the floor are widely spread out. Others sit far apart in the public galleries or in meeting rooms near the House and Senate chambers. Many of each chamber’s members listen in from home.

Voting is also much different with members in the capitol either voting in turns by voice or via the electronic tally board or by phone, sometimes from cars in nearby parking lots.  Members not in the capitol call in their votes.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking with Sen. Warren Limmer in close proximity on the Senate Floor.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking with Sen. Warren Limmer in close proximity on the Senate Floor.
In the Senate, Miller calls senators from adjacent rooms in sequence and directs them to remain apart. “Just a reminder, members, to come in through the side doors and exit through the front door,” he said during a vote on Thursday. 

Hortman said Thursday that she has recommended that House members wear masks when in close contact with others, but she has not made it a requirement for the House sergeant-at-arms to enforce.

“It may be that that becomes the standard, that people are required to wear masks even while speaking on the floor and that we ask the sergeant to enforce that. I’m hoping we get there through voluntary compliance,” Hortman said. 

She didn’t feel she had enough data on the effectiveness of masks to mandate their use. “I didn’t have access to clear scientific data showing the difference between transmission with and without masks that I could identify, (so) I decided not to go to the enforcement level with the sergeant at arms just yet,” Hortman said.

She said House staff are mostly deciding on their own to wear masks. The House reported that a staffer had tested positive for coronavirus in mid-March but has not revealed any further information about that case since.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent speaking with her chief of staff John Pollard on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent speaking with her chief of staff John Pollard on Thursday.
The matter of mask wearing received new attention this week when the Senate announced that a Republican staff member tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We have been notified that a Minnesota Senate employee has been confirmed to have COVID-19,” Ludeman wrote to members and staff on Wednesday morning. “All staff and Senators who may have come in contact with this individual have been notified and have been advised to self-quarantine.”

The Senate has installed plexiglass between some workstations, closed public access to Senate offices without appointment and even put down yellow stripes in hallways to encourage people to stay apart when passing. Elevators are limited to four people.

“We have also been able to acquire a very limited number of disposable masks and hand sanitizer,” Ludeman wrote. “These are for voluntary use within the Senate Building and Capitol complex.”

Republican Sens. Michelle Benson and Karen Housely shown during yesterday's session.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Republican Sens. Michelle Benson and Karen Housely shown during yesterday's session.
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent used the announcement to renew her call to have the Senate meet less frequently than it has been. The Woodbury DFLer also called for a requirement that all members and staff wear masks on the Senate floor.

“I have openly stated my serious concerns with the Senate holding frequent floor sessions and am renewing a call to only reconvene the body when absolutely necessary and for the requirement of protective face masks on the floor so we can finish the legislative session strong and reduce the risk of exposure,” Kent said in a statement released Wednesday. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said last week during a session at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs that mask-wearing is the only social distancing recommendation that he doesn’t see broad acceptance of around the state.

“I don’t think the science is out on that,” he said. 

He said small business people who want to reopen have told him they and their staff will wear masks “because they want people to feel safe.”

Gazelka said last week he was sympathetic with Vice President Mike Pence’s decision not to wear a mask during a recent visit to the Mayo Clinic because he was going to be speaking to a lot of people, and a mask makes it difficult to be understood.

“At 60, I have hearing aids and it’s harder for me to hear people who have that mask on,” Gazelka said.

There have been some widely shared Facebook posts — deemed false by the social media site — quoting health experts who say masks for healthy people do little good.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended cloth face masks as a way for asymptomatic people to prevent virus transmission to others. 

And this week the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce distributed information to its members about how to safely return to work. One item on its “Return To Work Employer Checklist” is:  “Encourage use of source control masks, such as non-medical cloth masks.”

Comments (43)

  1. Submitted by Brian Gandt on 05/08/2020 - 04:33 pm.

    “Gazelka said last week he was sympathetic with Vice President Mike Pence’s decision not to wear a mask during a recent visit to the Mayo Clinic because he was going to be speaking to a lot of people, and a mask makes it difficult to be understood.

    “At 60, I have hearing aids and it’s harder for me to hear people who have that mask on,” Gazelka said.”

    Wow. What the…also comes to mind in terms of the intelligence of the current Republican party.

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 05/09/2020 - 08:36 am.

      Guess you don’t wear hearing aids. I do. Honestly you can’t hear words when people wear a mask because they are muffled. I asked the manager at the grocery store if she’d heard that before and she didn’t hesitate.Many times a day, not just people who wear hearing aids.
      This has nothing to do with politics,I’m a Democrat

      • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 05/09/2020 - 10:29 am.

        But it has everything to do with common sense. I’d prefer to ask someone to speak up as opposed to passing on a virus. But that’s just me.

      • Submitted by John Ferman on 05/09/2020 - 12:42 pm.

        My mask hearing aid problem is the type of mask. My hearing aids have the battery compartment in a unit the goes over the ear, So a mask that attaches around the ear tends to dislodge the hearing aid as it contacts the wire between the aid and battery unit which also houses the microphone and sound pickup. I have to be extra special vigilant.

      • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 05/09/2020 - 01:00 pm.

        Hmm…..I’ve worn hearing aids for 15 years and I can hear people who have masks on. It’s the mumblers whom I have a problem hearing, mask or no mask. Gazelka is playing the trumplican game.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/13/2020 - 10:10 am.

          I have hearing aids–and I need new ones, but it’s hard to get an appointment with an audiologist now–and if I can’t understand someone who is wearing a mask, I simply tell them to speak louder and (here’s the important part) slower.

    • Submitted by John Watkins on 05/09/2020 - 12:08 pm.

      I wear hearing aids, am one season shy of 60, and hear people with masks just fine. And given my demographic, I don’t want anyone coming near me without a mask regardless of their party. It just plain inconsiderate right now.

  2. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 05/08/2020 - 07:04 pm.

    Either the members of the Republican caucus understand that the purpose of the mask is to prevent transmission by the asymptomatic mask-wearer, and cannot find it in themselves to have that level of consideration for those near them, or they do not understand that, evidencing that they are not willing or able to engage in a fairly modest bit of reasoning. The article doesn’t suggest which of these is the principal phenomenon in play.

  3. Submitted by Paul Finsness on 05/08/2020 - 07:48 pm.

    In spite of Gazelka’s flimsy rational for sympathizing with Pence’s unmasked face at the Mayo Clinic, all the Clinic personnel wore masks that day and subsequently Pence admitted he should have worn one too. How many positive tests for the virus in Republican staffers are required to convince Gazelka of the efficacy of wearing a cloth mask in the company of others?

    • Submitted by Terry Gordy on 05/10/2020 - 12:06 pm.

      If Pence not wearing a mask at Mayo was really such a big deal, then be mad at Mayo for allowing him to do it. They’re the ones that are the experts. Here’s how easy that is. Mr. Pence, please wear a mask. Sorry I don’t want to. Too bad, you have to. Done.

      • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 05/10/2020 - 03:04 pm.

        And the guy who runs the magazine stand should just politely reply that the protection fee is wrong and he’ll just keep the money in his pocket, thanks.

      • Submitted by Peter Stark on 05/14/2020 - 12:56 pm.

        Ah, yes, the Trump Administration, well-known for being reasonable and not at all vindictive or petty. We should definitely blame the Clinic for not standing up to one of the most powerful men on the planet.

  4. Submitted by tom kendrick on 05/09/2020 - 07:29 am.

    One study suggests that people’s divergent responses to a health crisis like this are really rooted in their respective political ideologies. If you want your party to remain in power you will likely downplay the importance of a given crisis. Interestingly, in the Ebola outbreak during the Obama years, it was the Republicans who said the sky was falling. One difference during the current pandemic is that, for many people these days, the sky IS falling. This is much bigger than the Ebola outbreak.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/09/2020 - 03:35 pm.

      Of course, the covid-19 pandemic is bigger than the Ebola crisis under the Obama administration! Obama’s people, as I recall it, were “all hands on deck!” and “the sky may be falling!’ about Ebola, and they attacked that disease so hard it failed to catch in the U.S. A tiny outbreak, quickly controlled by our government with science-based public health measures applied very carefully.

      Trump, on the other hand, not only thinks that bleach can be ingested or injected to combat the current coronavirus, he insists, for political-campaign reasons, that no one around him or he himself wear a mask to protect others from the virus. Then, he blows his stack [again?!?], when people close to him daily are exposed to other un-masked people and thus come down with the virus. Duh.

      Triump has mishandled all aspects of this covid-19 crisis. Unlike Obama.

      And of course masks are a perfect symbol: Not wearing a mask expresses one’s disdain for the health and well-being of all other people one comes into contact with and beyond–to all other people, en masse, as a country of compatriots. It also indicates disdain for science, and disdain for the rule of law or the law of anyone’s rules for any endeavor–like the Mayo Clinic’s rules about not spreading viral diseases around a hospital. Wearing a face mask would also symbolize the Donald’s acceptance of the FACT of a virulent disease running amok in the country. He’s still in denial.

  5. Submitted by Tom King on 05/09/2020 - 07:42 am.

    Says a lot about who were are what we are born to…no, it’s not a tumor in the right or left sided of your brain.

    It’s more likely a DNA grouping that leans us left or right no matter.

    Which leaning is the correct one? The one where we lean on each other.

    • Submitted by Peter Pesheck on 05/09/2020 - 11:34 am.

      Yes… we give and receive support as befits the situation, but a certain baseline of mutual respect usually needed between the parties. I think our current situation flows from:

      1. The FCC’s removal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987
      2. The transition of broadcast news from a public service to a profit center , with P/L responsibilities.
      2a. News that is lurid or controversial attracts more viewers, generates better “numbers”.
      2b. A financially-driven race to the bottom.
      3. The web and social media have put points 2a and 2b on steroids (stronger) and hyper-drive (faster).
      4. Here we are, what a mess!

      I believe that, today, people are just as decent and caring as they were long ago, but today we are being fed (and living under) a flood of misinformation deliberately crafted to divide us. If we’re fussy about whether what we eat is healthy, it’s even more important to be careful about what we read and watch, and who we choose to follow.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/09/2020 - 09:50 am.

    Those who wear masks should be considered pro-life for adults, because they are doing what they can to avoid infecting and killing other people. Those who feel wearing a mask violates their freedom also indicate their unwillingness to make any real sacrifice to protect the public health. If they don’t care if they infect others, they are too self centered to serve the citizens of our state.

    I saw one situation worth discussing – the deaf and hard of hearing. Many options. Take off your mask for a moment, employ a sign language interpreter or wear clear masks so people can read lips. I really don’t think the deaf and hard of hearing community thinks people should never be wearing face masks to cater to thrm.

    • Submitted by Mark Snyder on 05/11/2020 - 10:55 pm.

      I am deaf and yes, I would prefer you wear a mask. One other option that should get more attention is if you have a smart phone, there are apps you can use to transcribe what people are saying. I have one called LiveCaption.

  7. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 05/09/2020 - 09:51 am.

    Evolution = survival of the fittest and in the case of this coronavirus one wonders how many repubs will survive? I don’t wish harm on anyone, but I certainly won’t mourn for these foolish creatures.

  8. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 05/09/2020 - 10:42 am.

    To a large extent, it’s the relative weight you give to personal freedom vs. collective good. The problem comes when personal freedom doesn’t just fail to support collective good, but in fact contributes to collective harm.

    It’s interesting how we accept some limitations to personal freedom (red lights, stop signs, and one-way streets) but not others.

    These people – the ones not wearing masks – are not all bad people. And they’re not all ignorant. So why are these otherwise good, otherwise intelligent people behaving in a way that endangers others?

    Politics overrides rational behavior. Given the current state, wearing a mask should be considered basic, polite behavior. As the proverb says, “There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.”

    Maybe someone needs to sell “MAGA” masks.

    • Submitted by Steve Roth on 05/12/2020 - 01:59 pm.

      I’m truly surprised that MAGA or Trump 2020 masks aren’t part of the Trump merchandise offerings. While it might initially cause a lot of confusion among the faithful, it could really be a big seller. If Trump gets covid I’m willing to bet he’ll be selling masks within a week’s time.

      • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 05/14/2020 - 01:57 pm.

        But they are. Just Google “MAGA masks” (I don’t care to visit the websites in order to provide a link)

  9. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/09/2020 - 10:45 am.

    This is allowed…

    “…..also comes to mind in terms of the intelligence of the current Republican party.”

    But…

    “once again the Dems are concerned more with symbolism over substance (science)”

    is not allowed.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/11/2020 - 11:06 am.

      So let’s play that line of reasoning out. If your assertion is that Democrats are using masks as symbolism, in this case that they care for the health of their colleagues and staff, the symbolism of the Republicans in NOT taking the literal minute or so to mask up is? Last I checked, the antonym for caring is NOT bravery.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 05/12/2020 - 01:14 pm.

      “once again the Dems are concerned more with symbolism over substance”

      Ironic statement coming from a supporter of a border wall and a catchy slogan embroidered on a red cap.

  10. Submitted by Tom Wilson on 05/09/2020 - 11:33 am.

    I think the mask wearing has become a symbolic political statement for some….

  11. Submitted by T.W. Day on 05/09/2020 - 01:26 pm.

    This is obviously going to be one of evolution’s self-selecting obsolescence moments. At the least, people who chose to risk themselves and those around them should be required to sign a waiver that allows hospitals to refuse service if they have chosen not to take minimal precautions. If they were even slightly intellectually honest, they’d just make that decision for themselves.

  12. Submitted by Scott Walters on 05/09/2020 - 01:34 pm.

    There’s an old fashioned term that now applies to not wearing a mask. It’s rude. If you think calling someone rude is rude, then not wearing a mask is at least impolite.

  13. Submitted by Dru Osterud on 05/09/2020 - 06:57 pm.

    Considering that we know that covid-19 is spread through the air, not wearing a mask is acceptable only if one has been tested and declared disease free. I am 77 and wear hearing aids. I also wear glasses. Without the glasses clipping over my ears and my hearing aids, I have lost hearing aids, which is expensive. I can not understand people who mumble, turn their heads away or talk to the floor, a mask makes things more difficult but not impossible. What is maddening is being called rude for asking someone to repeat what they said. I know it’s annoying to be asked to repeat oneself, but it is also annoying to have to ask.

  14. Submitted by Terry Gordy on 05/10/2020 - 11:58 am.

    So many of you health experts on here conveniently ignore the fact that there is no data proving that wearing a mask is helpful…even though this . “I didn’t have access to clear scientific data showing the difference between transmission with and without masks that I could identify, (so) I decided not to go to the enforcement level with the sergeant at arms just yet,”

    Get off your high horse!

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/10/2020 - 09:38 pm.

      First, there is data to suggest that masks prevent the spread of Covid. The fact the data is limited is due to the fact that its a new disease. But there is plenty of data that shows masks prevent the spread of other, similarly transmitted viruses.

      This is why the the actual experts recommend wearing masks. The idea that people following the advice of experts is being on a “high horse” is absurd, but not surprising. This is what happens when you elect a game show host who squandered his inheritance on one failed business venture after another. Incompetence and ignorance are as good as expertise.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 05/11/2020 - 12:07 pm.

      Mr. Gordy, I jump on my “high horse” and follow safety guidelines for a variety of tasks that I preform everyday. In my 62 years, I’ve found that I live longer and retain most of my limbs when adhering to this policy.

  15. Submitted by Ed Day on 05/10/2020 - 09:36 pm.

    Robust scientific data would require months of observation (and possibly a control group willing to be exposed to the virus), but at least a month ago, the CDC recommended wearing a mask.

    I’m pretty sure there wasn’t absolute proof that making doctors wash their hands between patients prevented the spread of infection when it was first mandated. The proof came much later after observing infection rates at hospitals that implemented handwashing and comparing them to hospitals that did not.

  16. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/11/2020 - 07:58 am.

    We need to look at the larger picture: Republicans/Conservatives are just selfish people. Mask wearing is just the latest manifestation of a behavior we’ve been seeing since forever. Much of their and energy is spent trying to justify that selfishness. They claim to be the party of personal responsibility but never take responsibility for their failures. Don’t believe me? Let’s ask their National Leader: “I don’t take responsibility at all,”
    Donald J. Trump Friday March 13, 2020.

    • Submitted by Steve Roth on 05/12/2020 - 02:03 pm.

      That’s something I’ve been wondering about for awhile now – there really is a selfishness (“I got mine”) attitude among conservatives – certainly elected ones. With that comes a lack of empathy – seems like its often thought of as a weakness.

  17. Submitted by Dana Dickson on 05/11/2020 - 09:10 pm.

    The photos show that Republicans do not do social distancing. The are not stupid (they have the intellectual capacity to understand the consequences of their risky behavior), they are not ignorant (they have knowledge of the consequences of their risky behavior). Unfortunately for Minnesota, those consequences will not be limited to or focused on the perpetrators, innocent bystanders will die due to Republican behavior.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/12/2020 - 11:54 am.

      A pity the word that accurately describes the the average conservative that holds these views is not fit for publication in civilized forums such as this. It certainly would save time in the description.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/13/2020 - 10:23 am.

      When teenagers act like right-wingers who refuse to wear masks in public to “show that they’re not afraid” or who purposely rig their trucks to “roll coal” to flout air quality standards or who insist on making remarks that they know to be bigoted in order to flout what they call “political correctness,” we attribute their defiant attitude to their immaturity or their desire to establish an identity distinct from that of their parents.

      I have to wonder how these defiant right-wingers were brought up.

      Did they have overly controlling parents, so that they now chafe at any kind of restrictions on their behavior, as if rebelling against unreasonably strict rules about what clothes they could wear?

      Did they have overly indulgent parents who treated them as if they were the center of the universe, so that they think only of their own convenience and not of the common good?

      Or were their parents simply mean and dumb, teaching them to be misanthropes?

      Or is their family background irrelevant, and have they been brainwashed by forty years of listening to right-wing talk radio as they sit in traffic every morning and evening and being told that every non-right-wing news source is “biased”?

  18. Submitted by Steve Roth on 05/12/2020 - 02:00 pm.

    I’m having a hard time remembering protests and outrage over “no shirts, no shoes, no service” at retailers and restaurants.

  19. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 05/13/2020 - 01:34 pm.

    Wearing a mask in public is primarily a way of telling others that you respect their lives and are willing to accept a little discomfort to protect them. Going about in public without wearing a mask is the opposite message. To be clear, no mask is says you do not care about the lives of the people around you. You are willing to infect them so they’ll get out of your life. Simple.

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