Minnesota DFL legislators are demanding more transparency from Republican senators who held large indoor gatherings that may have contributed to a COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol.
The Capitol outbreak includes an unknown number of staffers and at least four senators, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, who said Sunday that he’s quarantining in Florida after testing positive. At least one House Republican member has also tested positive, a spokesman confirmed on Monday.
Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, is pressing for GOP leaders to share information as to whether senators and staff were potentially exposed at a private meeting, in order to prevent wider spread of the virus. News of the outbreak followed a legislative special session last week.
“I continue to care for patients on a regular basis,” said Klein, a medical doctor. “For their safety and my own, I demand that Senator Gazelka tell us if any of the members or staff who attended the November 12 special session with me have been tested or have experienced symptoms, and if any of those tests have been positive.”
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, has called for Gazelka’s resignation from his leadership post over the handling of the outbreak, and DFL Sen. Melisa Franzen said she plans to file an ethics complaint against him after it was revealed that many senators attended a Nov. 5 indoor dinner event at the Lake Elmo Inn to celebrate election victories.
Rachel Aplikowski, a Senate GOP spokeswoman, said she would not discuss members’ health or COVID results without their permission. “We take seriously the right to privacy for an individual’s health,” she said.
The confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Capitol ranks come days after a handful of lawmakers gathered in person for the sixth special session of the year. Republicans have said no one who was known to have the virus attended the session in person, but Democrats in both chambers said they were not informed of any possible COVID-19 spread before Thursday’s session.
“If I had known this information I would have avoided going to the Senate,” Franzen, DFL-Edina, said of the COVID-19 cases. She believes Gazelka acted in a way that meets the standards for bringing “dishonor and disrepute” to the Senate. “I think that would apply certainly because we’re the leaders of the state and we’re telling people to stay home and mask, but we are not leading by example.”
One Republican senator who attended the event wouldn’t say whether social distancing measures were used. Another said at his table empty seats divided people from different households and people maintained distancing while waiting in line for the bar. Yet another said some attendees wore masks.
Republicans also spent several hours indoors that day in a large Capitol campus meeting room to elect members to leadership positions. Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said about 30 people attended the caucus meeting and were socially distanced and masked. Abeler said he hasn’t been tested and doesn’t plan to because he’s not experiencing symptoms. “I don’t know that I was really even exposed,” he said. “I’m feeling good about that and I have no symptoms whatsoever.”
The Star Tribune contacted every rank-and-file member of the Senate Republican caucus on Monday. Many did not return requests for comment. Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township, said he attended the Nov. 5 caucus meeting and the Senate GOP victory event later that night.
Anderson said he had a cold but was not concerned that he was exposed to the virus and had not been tested. Anderson asked how the reporter got his cellphone number and vowed to change it immediately if the reporter planned to call again about COVID-19 or any other issue.
Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, said he was at both events but does not “see any need” to get tested because he wasn’t experiencing any symptoms. “If somebody is testing positive and contracted it somewhere, who knows where it came from?” Utke said. “It’s just a lot of it around and they talk about the community spread and stuff we’re seeing. I guess at least there is a lot more testing now than there was a few months back and with that the percentages are going to carry in some numbers.”
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, attended the caucus meeting and said she and her husband have since gotten COVID-19 tests and the results were negative. And Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, attended the Lake Elmo Inn event and said he hasn’t gotten a test because a Sept. 23 blood test showed he has antibodies. He said he suspects he got COVID-19 from a friend in August but thought it was just allergies at the time.
Aplikowski, the Senate GOP spokeswoman, said Monday that Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, also tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday after having close contact with someone in the chamber who had the virus. Relph started quarantining on Nov. 10 and did not attend the special session. Sens. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, also previously revealed positive COVID-19 tests and did not attend the session.
Legislators can choose whether to make a public announcement if they have COVID-19 but it’s not necessary because it’s their personal health data, said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. He said they encourage members to follow federal and state health guidelines and notify anyone they have had contact with recently if they catch the coronavirus.
“I don’t think we can or should expect legislators to be held to a different standard than we hold the public to,” Daudt said. “There’s a fine line between making sure people have the right information and COVID shaming or trying to do contract tracing through the media.”
Three House Republicans and a couple of staff members have reported COVID-19 cases since March, Daudt said. Three DFL legislators have also tested positive since then.
A spokesman for the House Republicans said a legislator who has COVID-19 attended the House GOP caucus meeting on Nov. 6 but did not attend the most recent special session. That person has isolated and alerted people they came in contact with, he said, adding that they are “extremely confident that the people who were in contact or close contact with our member ... were not at the session on Thursday.”
But Democrats are frustrated about how little they knew, particularly as they head into the 2021 regular legislative session in January.
On Monday, Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman sent an e-mail notifying members that they are amending the Senate’s COVID-19 Preparedness Plan to add a provision requiring any positive COVID-19 test to be reported to Senate human resources “so appropriate tracing can take place to protect all Senators and staff.”
Franzen said it’s “mind-boggling” that policy wasn’t in place before. While COVID-19 information is private data, employers have a duty to inform people if there is a risk, she said, adding that such notification is happening at other workplaces.
In the House, human resources staff announced in March that if someone had been exposed or infected they should inform HR, and staff would notify any legislators or employees who had contact with that person.
Daudt said he does not need to know about cases among his caucus members unless he was in close contact with them. “That’s none of my business,” he said, adding that it’s not OK to put the name of someone with COVID in the newspaper without their consent.
“COVID shaming is only going to encourage people not to come forward or not to test,” he said.
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.