Lawmakers are returning to St. Paul Monday for the fifth special legislative session of the year since May, but DFL state Sen. Chris Eaton will not be among them.
The Brooklyn Center Democrat says the Republican-controlled Senate has not taken proper precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and has filed a labor complaint in response.
Eaton has not appeared in person on the Senate floor since March, participating entirely remotely to avoid contracting the virus.
Eaton, 66, is a nurse, and said both she and her husband have underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk for severe illness if she were to become sick with the coronavirus. Her legislative assistant also has an underlying health condition.
Her Republican colleagues infrequently wear masks at the Capitol, on the Senate floor and in the Minnesota Senate Building where senators have offices, Eaton said.
“I’ve been trying really hard not to bring it to either one of them,” Eaton said in an interview, referring to her husband and legislative assistant. “I’m having to do all these special sessions and everything remotely, because Republicans won’t wear masks. I’ve talked to them individually. I’ve begged. So finally, I just said, if you’re not going to do anything, I’m going to file a formal complaint.”
Eaton filed a workplace complaint over the summer with the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration to register her concerns.
In her complaint, Eaton said “Senate members are not wearing face coverings in indoor spaces as required by Executive Order 20-81, when not alone in private offices or in legislative proceedings or meetings.”
Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order in July mandating the use of masks statewide, but there was an exemption. “This executive order does not apply to legislative proceedings and meetings,” the text reads.
“I understand the language in the executive order,” Eaton said. “But I don’t think that covers walking around the Senate building or the State Office Building.”
Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman wrote to MN OSHA on Aug. 27 in response to the complaint and said it lacked detailed information to help conduct an investigation, including names, dates and times.
“The Senate takes a complaint from Minnesota OSHA seriously and wishes to fully cooperate in this process,” Ludeman wrote. “However, the complaint does not provide any meaningful details, making investigation of the alleged hazard unfeasible.”
Eaton said she avoided giving names to avoid making the issue overtly political, but pointed to the various instances seen during floor sessions and committee meetings where GOP lawmakers infrequently wear masks or do not maintain social distance.
A call to Ludeman seeking comment was not returned, nor was a request for comment from a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.
In a Sep. 28 memo to Senate staff and members outlining COVID-19 safety measures and expectations, Ludeman issued a reminder that people feeling unwell should stay home.
Ludeman also wrote that medical exemptions for people and “the broad terms of the exemption provided for the Legislature … make enforcement of a comprehensive face covering requirement in spaces subject to Senate control impracticable.”
GOP lawmakers, including Gazelka, have regularly stated their opposition to Walz’s statewide mandate, despite health experts’ recommendations.
Already, some legislators and staff members have contracted the virus, including State. Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, who spoke publicly about his bout with the virus last month.
The pandemic, which has claimed 2,141 lives in Minnesota, is far from over, and Minnesota health officials fear the spread of the virus could worsen in the winter when people spend more time indoors.
The disease has also shown the ability to reach elite echelons. Despite regular testing and screening of symptoms, the White House is in the middle of a viral outbreak, infecting President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and a bevy of White House staffers.
Mask wearing and going without a mask at the State Capitol have become charged political symbols. During previous special legislative sessions, few, if any Republican lawmakers, have been wearing masks on the House and Senate floor, whereas their DFL counterparts usually wear masks unless they are making floor speeches.
Eaton said she has personally asked Gazelka to instruct his members to wear masks, and his response by text message made clear he thinks it’s up to individuals to decide.
“As usual, safe distancing, wash your hands, cover your cough, if you have a temperature or are not feeling well, don’t come,” Gazelka responded when she asked if GOP state senators would wear masks. “Some will, and some won’t wear a mask.”
Eaton said her GOP colleagues’ behavior has made it difficult for her to be an effective legislator.
“I can’t speak on the floor,” she said. “I can’t be there to talk to other people about legislation that’s important to me. I feel really cut off from my job.”