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

Mask-wearing at the statehouse has become a partisan preference, with DFLers far more likely to wear face coverings than Republicans. 

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

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.

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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. 

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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.

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“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.”