Georgia senator’s diagnosis sends legislative branch into isolation

Custodian Brenda Love cleans the door handles at the Georgia Capitol earlier this month. Love said she cleaned “everything the public touches” out of caution due to the coronavirus. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Custodian Brenda Love cleans the door handles at the Georgia Capitol earlier this month. Love said she cleaned “everything the public touches” out of caution due to the coronavirus. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia’s entire legislative branch was urged to self-isolate after a state senator revealed he tested positive for coronavirus, two days after he showed up for a special session vote with symptoms of the disease while he was waiting for the results.

The development sparked outrage from some of his colleagues, a reprimand from Gov. Brian Kemp and new scrutiny over recent decisions by legislative leaders that could have prolonged the exposure to hundreds of people at the Capitol.

All 236 Georgia lawmakers and dozens of the Legislature's staffers, along with teenage pages, received memos late Wednesday urging them to isolate themselves for two weeks after the state senator, Brandon Beach, disclosed his positive test for COVID-19.

What infuriated many was his admission that he still attended votes over the past week as he suffered from a mild fever and a cough — two of the most frequent symptoms of the virus. On Monday, Beach told bystanders he wasn’t feeling well and was visibly fighting a cold.

In a statement, the Alpharetta Republican said he was tested for the disease on Saturday and, while still awaiting the results, felt he “was in the clear” to attend a special session vote Monday that granted Kemp new authority to respond to the pandemic.

“I know many Georgians are praying hard as we weather this crisis together, and frankly, I’d ask that they pray for me,” Beach said, “as well as all the others in our state who are going through this right now — and those who soon will.”

His decision to show up sick at the Capitol amid a pandemic was swiftly condemned by colleagues who admonished him for ignoring the warnings of health officials and state leaders who had urged Georgians for days to stay home if they showed any sign of illness.

"His hubris was mind-boggling," said state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna. "You've got people from every corner of the state working together under the same roof, giving out advice to the public. But we weren't holding ourselves to the same standard that we expected."

The governor chastened Beach as well, casting his decision as a “good example why people need to do what we’re asking them to do.”

“The biggest thing is social distance yourself,” Kemp said in an interview on 680 The Fan. “If you are sick, do not — do not — go out. Stay home until you can figure out what’s going on. Don’t go to the doctor. Don’t show up at the emergency room. Don’t show up at work.”

‘Floored me’

In quick succession, both Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate president, and House Speaker David Ralston sent emails to lawmakers and staffers urging them to isolate themselves through March 30 because of their potential exposure to Beach and others he could have infected.

Inboxes and social media feeds were soon full of updates from lawmakers who said they were heeding the order and going into personal quarantine. Some legislators sent emails to constituents trumpeting that they were in “good health.”

Kemp, too, was forced to answer questions about whether he also would isolate himself because of his interactions with Beach, who as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee frequently met with the governor and his administration’s aides.

“I never interacted with any legislators” on Monday, the governor said. “I was asked to come speak to the caucus meetings. I told them that was a bad idea. We ended up doing that by phone calls on Sunday night and Monday morning.”

It also triggered new scrutiny of a series of decisions and mixed messages over the past week from legislative leaders concerning the threat of the growing pandemic.

The third floor of the Capitol — where the House and Senate chambers are located — is packed tightly on session days with hundreds of lobbyists, visiting members of professional associations, Georgians there to be recognized for various achievements, lawmakers and pages. With so many people in close proximity, colds and the flu can be easily passed around over the winter months.

On March 10, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia began to mount, Ralston suspended the student page program, banned most guests and urged the public "in the strongest possible terms" to watch proceedings from afar.

The same day, Duncan sent out a statement saying the chamber would “be open for the people’s business” with no changes. Anulewicz remembers expressing shock a few days later when she saw a gaggle of teenage students in the Senate as lawmakers prepared to suspend the session.

“It floored me,” she said.

Duncan’s top aide, John Porter, said the lieutenant governor had no regrets about his decision to continue normal operations.

“I’m sure all of us will reflect back on this time and think of things they could have done better, different, sooner or later, etc.,” Porter said. “However, I’m 100 percent confident that all the decisions we’ve made regarding the operation of the Senate have been sound and arrived upon after thorough and careful deliberation.”

Others raised the possibility that Beach could have exposed many older lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists over the past week.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat, pointed out the high number of aging senators and doorkeepers who are thought to be more susceptible to the virus.

“What we’ve seen is because the lack of tests available, if you actually get one — if a doctor thinks your symptoms are severe enough that you need to be tested — you need to stay home,” she said.

On March 12, legislators indefinitely postponed the legislative session until the public health crisis subsided, although House lawmakers stayed in the building to pass a flurry of measures through midnight to the chagrin of many of the legislators.

They were unexpectedly brought back to the General Assembly by Kemp’s declaration of a public health emergency, a decision that required lawmakers to reconvene at the state Capitol on Monday for a one-day session.

As a nurse patrolled outside to do spot checks of passersby who volunteered — no fevers were reported — lawmakers filed in for an 8 a.m. session that was expected to last roughly an hour.

But the schedule was upended as House and Senate leaders couldn’t agree on whether to put an expiration date on the declaration, extending what should have been a quick process to an eight-hour vote.

Beach is the first known state lawmaker to test positive for the virus that has sickened at least 287 in Georgia and is linked to 10 deaths, though state Sen. Bruce Thompson said he had been hospitalized in an intensive care unit and awaiting test results. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was feeling better and doctors are working to "heal my lungs."

It’s not immediately clear how Beach, who was not hospitalized, obtained the test.

Kemp has ordered health officials to ration tests to those most at risk of infection, such as older residents, medical workers and first responders. His office said Thursday that the policy included testing for specific lawmakers who are health care workers, though that wouldn’t include Beach, an economic development specialist.

His colleagues, meanwhile, scrambled Thursday to decide whether they would isolate themselves for the next two weeks or just take other precautions to steer clear of the public. Each received a memo from the Department of Public Health advising them how to “closely monitor” their health.

Some of Beach’s allies said it was only a matter of time until someone in the building came down with the disease.

"I don't think he was the first case — he might have been the first case to test positive," said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. "But it probably had already been in the building. This has been a learning experience for all of us."

Others could hardly contain their frustration.

"I'm so angry," said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, an Emory University microbiologist. "I am now having to self-quarantine because people don't think the rules apply to them."