A COVID-19 outbreak among Minnesota Republican lawmakers and legislative aides has grown to include at least one member of the House GOP caucus, the Reformer has learned.
In a Nov. 7 email obtained by the Reformer — with the sender’s name redacted — a House Republican warned colleagues about a likely COVID diagnosis and followed up with another a few days later confirming the case.
The House Republican lawmaker had good reason to inform colleagues: On Nov. 6, the House GOP caucus gathered in a windowless committee room at the State Office Building to choose a new leader, electing Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, as minority leader.
The night before that, the caucus had gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel to celebrate Republican legislative victories, including picking up six House seats.
Andrew Wagner, a spokesman for House Republicans, declined to say who or how many in the caucus were infected but said no one positive — or at risk of being positive — attended last week’s one-day special legislative session.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, texted a statement to the Reformer: “The minority leader did not make me aware of any known or suspected cases in his caucus prior to or after Thursday’s session.” She declined to comment further.
The infection is just one of many that have been revealed in recent days, starting with state Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, as well as state Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth. On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, confirmed he had contracted the virus and is quarantining in Florida. Republicans failed to tell their Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party colleagues about the outbreak prior to the legislative session, though most senators ultimately voted remotely.
Fox 9 reported on Sunday that Senate Republicans, like their House GOP counterparts, also held a Nov. 5 post-election victory party at a Lake Elmo event center that included between 100-150 people.
“Few attendees wore masks, and the party lasted for hours,” according to the Fox 9 report.
Even as Minnesota is enduring a wave of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Gazelka has advocated against restrictions on gatherings or social places like bars and restaurants to stop the spread of coronavirus. He has said Minnesotans can be trusted to follow health guidelines and people can make their own decisions about how to keep the disease at bay.
While announing that he tested positive, Gazelka remained largely defiant, saying, “I expect like 99% of people, I will make a full recovery.”
Citing the effects on education, seniors and people’s mental health, Gazelka said living with the pandemic is preferable than the alternative of a more aggressive mitigation strategy: “Our future cannot be prolonged isolation, face coverings and limited activities.”
— Brian Bakst (@Stowydad) November 15, 2020
In an extraordinary rebuke, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, on Sunday called for Gazelka to resign his position as majority leader after learning of the large in-person celebration.
“As state leaders it is our responsibility to lead by example,” Kent said in a statement. “The Senate majority leader is entrusted with the responsibility of keeping all members and staff in the Senate safe. Sen. Gazelka has failed to do both. Under his leadership, Republican caucus members have engaged in high-risk behaviors, he has misled Minnesotans about their actions, and they have made excuses instead of being accountable.”
Senate DFL senators are also considering filing an ethics complaint. State Sen. Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, said Sunday she would consult with Senate counsel on Monday.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz said Senate Republicans had a “moral obligation” to disclose the outbreak in order to protect lawmakers, staff and other people who may come into contact with people infected with the virus.
For months Republicans have sought to strip Walz of his peacetime emergency powers to fight the pandemic, but Senate Republicans abruptly reversed themselves during last week’s special session by declining to hold a vote to end Walz’s peacetime emergency declaration, as they have five times previously.
Unanswered questions, conflicting accounts
As more details of the Senate GOP outbreak emerged over the weekend, Senate GOP spokeswoman Rachel Aplikowski, who did not reply to text messages from the Reformer, issued statements pushing back on characterizations that Republicans were irresponsible by not disclosing information about the infections.
In a Saturday memo, she said only GOP senators and staff had come into contact with senators who tested positive. “No one from the Republican caucus with a known positive COVID test or COVID symptoms attended special session on Thursday,” the memo said.
Public health officials, however, warn that people can be infected before exhibiting symptoms, while others will not develop symptoms.
Nor was the precise timeline always clear. On Sunday, Gazelka said he first experienced symptoms on Monday, before his travel to Florida. Later, Aplikowski told MPR News’ Brian Bakst that Gazelka was not in fact experiencing symptoms on Monday when he traveled to Florida.
Gazelka on Sunday also told MPR News that until questioned about the outbreak, he had not yet notified the Lake Elmo event center about the infections. “I just got off the phone with the owner and apologized for our oversight,” he said.