Republican leaders of the Minnesota Legislature suggested Friday that state lawmakers and the staff who work for them should be among the early recipients of a COVID-19 vaccine when it is available.
“I’m encouraging the vaccines, as one of the priority groups after elderly and some of our front-line workers, that we think about the people that have to be essential at the Capitol,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said at a forum with other legislative leaders.
With a new legislative session starting on Jan. 5, lawmakers and staff should be a priority so they can return to in-person work at the State Capitol, Gazelka said at the forum hosted by Fluence Media.
A spokeswoman for Gazelka said later Friday that there have been no formal talks about any plan to vaccinate lawmakers. She said Gazelka had nothing additional to add to his comments at the forum.
Gazelka himself tested positive for COVID-19 in November, along with several other Republican senators who attended a postelection party that the caucus threw at a Lake Elmo restaurant. The Republicans did not in all cases inform Democratic lawmakers and others who mingled with them at a special session in mid-November, and after facing criticism for not disclosing the outbreak, Gazelka later said the situation should have been handled better.
Gazelka is hoping that the upcoming session, which lasts from early January to late May, can be convened with a hybrid model that would allow lawmakers to work in person or via Zoom.
But the state House, which is controlled by Democrats, will be conducting sessions entirely by Zoom until it is safe to do otherwise, said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, reiterated the idea that many legislators may well be among the elderly or medically vulnerable populations vaccinated early, thereby possibly allowing the Legislature to resume some business.
“At some point, if we need to vaccinate anybody in the Legislature who is themselves high risk or has someone high risk living in their household — employees, whatever — if that helps us get back in person sooner, I would support that,” said Daudt, R-Crown. “The Legislature is a relationship business and relationships cultivate much better in person.”
Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield, blasted GOP leaders for suggesting elected officials should be near the front of the line. He said lawmakers need to work together to prioritize health care workers, the elderly and chronically ill, and teachers and food service workers, instead of “cutting in line.”
“Have you no sense of decency?” Howard said in a news release. “This brazen and selfish request is especially galling coming from legislators that have consistently minimized the seriousness of COVID-19, exacerbating a dangerous and highly contagious disease.”
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said lawmakers have an obligation to themselves and their staff as well as the people of Minnesota. “I appreciate what Sen. Gazelka is saying in terms of if we could get the essential folks vaccinated at the Legislature, but we have an obligation to our own communities,” Kent said. “If we come together and if people come to the Legislature and intermingle and then go back all over the state of Minnesota, that’s how spread happens.”
Under the state’s emerging vaccination plan, hospital, long-term facility workers and perhaps facility residents will be given priority, followed by essential workers and those with greater risk of severe illness due to their age or other health conditions.
Gov. Tim Walz reiterated that Friday afternoon, saying the focus would be on health care providers and people living in long-term care facilities.
Walz noted that he does not fall into those categories. “I’m pretty sure the public’s not going to put politicians on a priority list,” he said.
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.
Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report For America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation.