Updated: 6:25 p.m.
The Republican majority leader of the Minnesota Senate has tested positive for COVID-19, and is facing calls from the DFL minority to resign his leadership post over his handling of an outbreak affecting the GOP caucus.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, announced the positive test on Sunday morning. He is at least the third Senate Republican to test positive for the disease in the past week, and it comes as more than 7,500 Minnesotans had COVID-19 diagnoses revealed Sunday. That’s more than three times higher than the rate just two weeks ago.
Gazelka, 61, is currently traveling in Florida, where he flew last Monday. He said he developed symptoms at some time that day. A spokesperson said Gazelka wasn’t displaying symptoms when he went to Florida. Medical experts say people with COVID-19 are usually contagious for at least one to two days before they start showing symptoms.
He attended Thursday’s special session virtually, as did many other senators. Gazelka said his symptoms weren’t serious and he expected to recover.
Republican senators, spouses and some staff gathered two nights after the Nov. 3 election for a celebratory in-person dinner in Lake Elmo, according to multiple sources. They were celebrating the GOP’s retention of its Senate majority: a one-seat 34-33 majority, starting in January. The GOP senators also held a caucus meeting that day.
Several days after those Nov. 5 meetings, GOP senators such as Gazelka, Rochester’s Dave Senjem and Plymouth’s Paul Anderson began showing symptoms.
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When asked whether the GOP Senate caucus had notified the Lake Elmo venue where the dinner was held about the positive COVID tests, Gazelka told MPR News on Sunday that “based on your questioning, we realized we had not notified the event site. I just got off the phone with the owner and apologized for our oversight."
A message left for representatives of the venue was not returned Sunday afternoon.
Sunday’s news — following earlier reports that the GOP caucus had received word of the positive COVID tests but did not inform their DFL colleagues — prompted Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, to call for Gazelka to resign his leadership post.
“As state leaders it is our responsibility to lead by example. The Senate majority leader is entrusted with the responsibility of keeping all members and staff in the Senate safe. Senator Gazelka has failed to do both,” Kent wrote. “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.”
Kent’s statement said that “uncertainty remains as to who was potentially exposed due to a major lack of precautionary steps by Senate Republicans,” and that she is working with the governor’s office to provide testing and tracing to Senate members and staff.
There has been no such outbreak yet of clustered COVID-19 cases among DFL lawmakers, though several DFL lawmakers have contracted the disease over the course of the pandemic. No lawmaker in either party has died from the disease so far.
Republican lawmakers have questioned DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s use of emergency powers to control COVID-19, and said some of the restrictions he imposed were too heavy-handed and damaging to people’s livelihoods. But last week, unlike recent months, they didn’t attempt to vote an end to Walz’s emergency powers, given the state’s current explosive growth in cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
Gazelka doubled down on his criticism of Walz’s COVID-19 restrictions in announcing his diagnosis, saying “our future cannot be prolonged isolation, face coverings and limited activities.”
Republican leadership sent an internal email early last week warning Republican members and staff about the outbreak.
But Kent, the Senate minority leader, said her caucus was not informed about the positive COVID-19 tests prior to Thursday's special session. She issued a statement Friday night calling that "outrageous and completely unacceptable."
"This lack of transparency is a blatant disregard for the health and safety of others: our DFL and non-partisan staff, members, and the communities we go home to,” Kent said.
A Senate GOP spokesperson said no one from the Republican caucus who was in attendance at Thursday's special session posed a risk of spreading COVID-19.
Walz issued a statement Saturday saying that anyone who knows about a positive COVID-19 test has a "moral obligation" to inform others who may be at risk.
“As elected officials, we must lead by example. I simply do not understand why Senate Republicans chose only to share that there were positive cases in their caucus with members of their own party before Thursday’s floor session," Walz said. "Injecting partisanship into public health, their actions knowingly put the safety of their DFL colleagues, non-partisan staff, and Capitol law enforcement at risk. We must put aside our differences and look out for our neighbors. At the end of the day, we are all Minnesotans.”
This wasn’t the first time a state Legislature was faced with lawmakers testing positive for COVID-19 but not informing their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. A similar situation occurred in Pennsylvania in May, when a Republican state representative interacted with Democratic lawmakers without telling them he had tested positive for COVID-19.