The Oregon Legislature convened a special session on Wednesday amid a worldwide pandemic that has killed over 121,000 people in the United States.
Age, travel, crowding and a few colleagues refusing to wear face masks were among the challenges for lawmakers who came to Salem from across the state to convene in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
“I’ll tell you, I’m scared,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, 77.
The Oregon Legislature has statistical reasons for extra concern. A large portion of the 60 House members and 30 senators are over age 60, a group deemed “at risk” for serious illness and death from COVID-19.
Less than 1% of those under 50 who are infected with COVID-19 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For 50-64, it’s 3%. At 65-74, the rate more than triples to 10%. For 75-84, it doubles again to 21%.
Despite concerns, all but a small number of lawmakers were at their desks at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
They included Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro, who is 81 and Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, 72. Another four senators over 70 attended.
The House quorum included Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield, Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Happy Valley, and Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, who are all 70 or older.
Coming to the state capital increases the odds of infection.
Salem is in Marion County, one of the counties hardest hit by COVID-19. It’s had over 1,300 cases and 36 deaths.
The Capitol is a challenge all its own. Built in 1938, the compact art deco building has soaring open space under the rotunda. But go up the twin marble stairs to the House and Senate chambers and space gets tight.
Just the lawmakers, essential staff and a few media pushed the total number of people above the danger zone for crowds during the COVID-19 crisis. The public was barred from the building, though the deliberations were livestreamed by the state.
Members of each chamber grappled with different issues in trying to deal with possibly spreading the infection.
With only 30 members, the Senate was able to operate closer to normal with social distancing easier to accomplish.
Courtney asked senators to wear face coverings and made public appeals for cooperation. But he stopped short of measures taken in the House, where face coverings were required.
Sen. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, announced Tuesday she had strep throat and would not return to Salem until sure she would not pass it on to colleagues.
At a morning press conference following the opening of the session, Courtney praised the senators for wearing masks.
But Courtney was told the effort had not been a complete success.
Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, and Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, did not wear face coverings.
Courtney said he was disappointed.
“We have individuals who just think they know, and they’re going to do whatever they want to do. It marred a perfect day,” Courtney said.
Courtney said he will ask Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, to speak with his caucus to urge again that they wear face coverings when senators meet next on Thursday afternoon.
“Senator Girod has encouraged the senators to wear face coverings out of respect for others, but it’s ultimately up to each person,” said Kate Gillem, spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Caucus.
Roblan, a diabetic, said he weighed the personal dangers of going to Salem. He reviewed medical information, was briefed on recommendations to the Legislature by infectious disease experts for Oregon Health & Science University and heard about the extraordinary efforts the Capitol staff would take almost nonstop to disinfect areas where the lawmakers would be meeting.
A few older lawmakers had already told legislative leaders that they would not come to Salem out of an abundance of caution or medical advice.
Roblan talked it over with his wife and decided to go.
“I know there are risks I’ll have to take, but I signed up for this,” Roblan said. “I have a strong duty to represent the people of my district. I felt comfortable that all the necessary precautions were being taken.”
When Boquist and Linthicum showed up in the chamber without masks, Roblan said he was taken aback.
“It was disturbing,” Roblan said. “I am not sure what statement they are trying to make. They didn’t articulate one to us. You don’t wear the mask for yourself. You wear it out of respect for the people around you. It’s not about them. It’s about the rest of us.”
Over in the House, traffic control was the main challenge of the day for House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. Having all members on the floor at the same time would make social distancing impossible. So the lawmakers were organized into groups to come from their nearby offices to the chamber’s floor or aisle to cast votes. Kotek sometimes had to act as hall monitor when groups passed by each other.
“Six feet people, six feet,” she shouted at one point.
Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, wore a mask and came to Salem. But he questioned the reasoning of Gov. Kate Brown and her allies in the Democratic-led Legislature for calling a session to deal with a slew of policy bills instead of working on how to fix a $2.7 billion hole in the state budget caused by shuttered businesses and massive unemployment after the coronavirus hit Oregon.
“Oregon Democrat leaders want 90 Oregonians and a few others to gather in the State Capitol for work that could wait until things are safer,” Post wrote on Twitter. “I hope elder members stay safe, stay healthy.”
Brown is expected to call another special session later in the summer to deal with the budget.
But advocates of the special session say the health risks are also worth it to reform police practices that were exposed by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who prosecutors say was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day. Floyd’s death set off worldwide protests that are still ongoing.
“There are issues in this culture, in this community, that have been passed over. That there was another virus, racism,” said Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland. “I am both pleased and overwhelmed by the fact that we are going to be looking at those issues in this special session.”
Seventeen states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have introduced more than 165 law enforcement-related bills over the past three weeks, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the evening, the House reconvened after a break for a floor session. As they arrived, lawmakers learned the latest grim news issued by the Oregon Health Authority: The state reported 171 new positive cases of COVID-19 — another in a string of recent days that have seen cases stay above 100 per day for most of two weeks. The new infections brought the official state total to 7,444.
Three more Oregonians had died from COVID-19. The latest death — the 195th in Oregon since March — was a woman from Marion County.