Cases among senators raise COVID questions at Minn. Capitol

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, speaks on a bill during a special session in July 20 in St. Paul.
Glenn Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

Update: 7:23 p.m.

A spokesperson for the Minnesota Senate Republican caucus said Monday St. Cloud Sen. Jerry Relph went to the emergency room twice in recent days with COVID-19 symptoms after testing positive but was not hospitalized. 

Relph is the fourth confirmed case among Senate Republicans. 

News of the COVID outbreak among their colleagues came as a surprise to Senate Democrats, who were not notified by Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, even though Gazelka himself tested positive last week. 

Over the weekend, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury accused Gazelka of a cover up and called on him to resign his leadership post. 

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Kent said she’s heard from many Minnesotans who agree.

“Everybody works in a workplace, right?” Kent said. “They can put themselves in the position of ‘what if only one group of people got information that would affect all of us?’ That’s not cool, you know?”

As Gazelka showed no sign of resigning his post, Kent said Republicans’ behavior regarding COVID-19 has been reckless. She has complained for months about GOP lawmakers not wearing masks and not distancing from others.

Senate policy requires positive COVID-19 cases to be reported to human resources, with no public disclosure to protect privacy.

With a new legislative session approaching, Kent says changes are needed for committee meetings and floor sessions. 

The Senate allows only members who are in the chamber to speak, not those voting from home. But procedures aren't Kent’s current priority.

“My first concern right now is to make sure that our members and staff are getting access to testing and contact tracing and that we have this information,” she said. “The information that we’ve gotten from Republicans keeps being eclipsed by what we find out in news reports.”

Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, who is also a physician, demanded full transparency to assist in contact tracing for exposed members of the Senate and public.

"I continue to care for patients on a regular basis. For their safety and my own, I demand that Sen. Gazelka tell us if any of the members or staff who attended the Nov. 12 special session with me have been tested or have experienced symptoms, and if any of those tests have been positive,” Klein said in a release. He added that it could be accomplished while also protecting individual privacy concerns.

The DFL-controlled Minnesota House has been under strict procedures for months to try to keep members safe. Committee meetings are held remotely, and lawmakers have the option of participating in person for floor sessions.

Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the next step might have to be a switch to fully remote floor sessions.

“I’ve asked for masks at all times in our spaces, and we have a disappointing lack of compliance,” Hortman said. “So then, I do have to ask the question of what other steps do I have to take as Speaker of the House to ensure that we can have a safe working environment if people are not going to comply with the health and safety guidelines that are already out there?”

In preparation for 2021, the House has installed new technology to allow for electronic voting remotely. The move would eliminate the need for lengthy roll calls.

The House has also had cases of COVID-19 this year.

Hortman said she was not aware of any recent COVID-19 diagnosis. When asked about the number of cases and the current health status of members, Hortman said she could not discuss the issue.

“You would have to have individual members share their health status with you to get an answer to that question,” Hortman said.

But a House Republican caucus spokesman confirmed reports that one member did recently test positive, and stressed that the member, whom the spokesman would not name, did not attend last week’s special session.

As for Gov. Tim Walz, who is tested regularly, the office has yet to have a senior staff member contract the coronavirus. Walz self-quarantined for two weeks in the spring after a member of his security detail tested positive.

Walz aides say they would continue to make public if the governor had similar exposure to someone who has the illness and also alert the public if a senior adviser, a bodyguard or member of the residence staff contracted COVID-19.

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.