Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Tuesday that he could have handled a large indoor gathering and information sharing about COVID-19 differently, following an outbreak at the Minnesota Capitol and demands from DFL legislators for more transparency.
"I personally will apply lessons from this episode to inform future decisions as we prepare for the 2021 legislative session," Gazelka said in a statement. "I am committed to protecting senators, staff and the people with whom we come in contact."
Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, was one of at least four GOP senators, one House Republican and an unknown number of staffers who have the coronavirus. Gazelka said Sunday that he is in quarantine in Florida after testing positive.
The week before last Thursday's legislative special session, Republican senators had an indoor GOP caucus meeting as well as a large indoor dinner to celebrate their election wins. News of the COVID-19 cases did not come out until days after the special session.
While a limited number of Democrats and Republicans attended the special session in person, House and Senate Democrats nonetheless condemned their GOP colleagues for not letting them know ahead of time about the confirmed cases.
Republicans have said no one with a known case of COVID-19 was at the Capitol for the special session.
Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that he had been texting with Gazelka and had shared his concerns that Democrats were not informed about the COVID-19 cases.
Walz said he is glad that it seems there are no serious illnesses from the outbreak at the Capitol. He said in future it seems "there will be an open sharing of information amongst folks around communicable diseases in the Senate, which is a good thing, and a desire to work together to keep Minnesotans safe. So I think today's development sure seems positive all the way around."
Coronavirus cases are spiking statewide, and Gazelka said in his statement Tuesday that the Senate understands the seriousness of the situation. He said Republicans, who maintained control of the Senate in the November election, are committed to working with Walz and the DFL-controlled House to solve problems.
"We in the Senate ... will continue to push for a state response that protects people's health without destroying their livelihoods, especially for our long-term care residents and employees," Gazelka said.
DFL Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent said Tuesday that she had not heard of significant developments or new cases since Monday night. Her focus, she said, remains "trying to figure out how we make sure that we have good policies moving forward."
"All of us deserve a safe workplace, but when a bunch of people don't take this seriously and don't think their behavior poses a threat to the rest of us and our communities, that's challenging," the Woodbury senator said.
Kent previously called for Gazelka to resign as majority leader over his handling of the outbreak. And DFL Sen. Melisa Franzen said she plans to file an ethics complaint against him.
The anger over the lack of disclosure about COVID-19 cases was compounded by news that many senators held an indoor celebration of their election victories at the Lake Elmo Inn on Nov. 5.
The Star Tribune contacted every Senate Republican on Monday, although many did not return requests for comment.
Responses from GOP legislators ranged widely. Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township, said he attended both the caucus meeting and the dinner event and had a cold. But he was not concerned about exposure and had not gotten a COVID-19 test.
Research has shown that about 20% of people who have COVID-19 do not exhibit any symptoms and continue to be contagious.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, attended only the caucus meeting. She and her husband have since both gotten tested and the results were negative.
Republican senators described mixed compliance with health guidelines among attendees at the Lake Elmo Inn event.
John Schiltz, the owner of the Lake Elmo Inn, said his staff wore masks, spaced tables for social distancing and asked people to wear masks when they were moving around the restaurant. No staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 or exhibited symptoms since the Nov. 5 event.
"When you only have six staff members, you try to control it," he said. "We did the best that we could; when you've got 100-plus people, it's hard to control people."
Schiltz said he was contacted by the Senate and received an apology for the subsequent outbreak in the caucus.
Staff writers Briana Bierschbach and Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044