Georgia senators prepare for Capitol return after coronavirus recovery

Georgia State Capital
Georgia State Capital

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

After nearly 10% of Georgia’s state senators tested positive for the coronavirus in March, lawmakers preparing to return to the state Capitol where many of them got sick are calling for measures to keep the General Assembly safe.

Five state senators reported testing positive for COVID-19 shortly after the Legislature suspended its session in March in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease. While all of them express some level of caution about returning to the Capitol, they differ on when the session should resume and what steps are needed to protect the several hundred lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and members of the public who gather there each day.

"It took me over three weeks to get over the coronavirus, and I consider myself a strong, healthy young man," said 60-year-old state Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah. "So I am cautious about being around a lot of people at this time."

The legislative session is an environment that is ripe for passing infectious diseases.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and guests typically shake hands and exchange hugs dozens of times a day. And 56 state senators are in close quarters in the chamber each day, along with the lieutenant governor and dozens of Senate staffers and journalists.

It’s unclear when lawmakers will return to complete the session, when they’ll have to pass a state budget that will be markedly different than what was approved by the House in March due to slowed state revenue during the pandemic.

House Speaker David Ralston has said he believes lawmakers should return June 11, while Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, wants to resume May 14. Ralston has also cleared the way for in-person committee meetings to resume May 19.

State Sen. Bruce Thompson, a Republican from White who was hospitalized with COVID-19, said it's important for lawmakers to get back to the Capitol as soon as possible.

“I am not concerned with coming back to the Capitol, but I will say this — we have a budget that we have to pass,” he said. “Other than that, my priority is helping in any way I can to get businesses open. It’s just as tragic when we lose a business as it is when we lose a life.”

Thompson made headlines in March when a Florida sheriff blasted him for traveling to his beachfront home in St. George a week and a half after announcing he had tested positive for COVID-19. After the sheriff posted a deputy outside Thompson's home to ensure he and his family had placed themselves under a quarantine, the senator left Florida a day after arriving.

Businesses across the state have had to close and lay off workers in the past two months. Since mid-March, nearly 1.4 million unemployment claims have been processed in the state — 28% of the workers in Georgia. And many businesses are deciding whether to reopen or continue to wait out the effects of the pandemic.

Gov. Brian Kemp this week let a statewide shelter-in-place order expire, though he encouraged people to stay home and avoid crowds larger than 10 when possible. Kemp did, however, extend the order requiring the elderly and those deemed "medically fragile" to shelter at home through June 13.

State Sen. Nikema Williams said she doesn't understand why the elderly — whom Kemp defined as those 65 or older — are being asked to stay at home, but lawmakers, many of whom are over 60, are planning to return before the order expires.

“That’s 90% of our body — maybe more,” said Williams, an Atlanta Democrat who tested positive for COVID-19. “Most of us should still be home.”

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Marietta Republican who tested positive for the coronavirus, said it was important for people across the state to continue to follow health guidelines such as washing hands, social distancing and using common sense to stay safe.

“That is how we will maintain the progress that we have made with the virus so far,” she said.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican who was the first lawmaker to test positive for COVID-19, said he supports resuming the session May 14 and believes that lawmakers and those in the Capitol will take smart steps to remain healthy while "doing the people's work."

“It was tough and we need to respect the coronavirus, but we cant live in fear,” he said. “We can’t live with 22-23% unemployment. That is unacceptable. We’ve got to get our economy reignited.”

Beach's test results came two days after he attended a special legislative session to grant Kemp executive powers during the declared health emergency. The announcement of his diagnosis prompted legislative leadership to urge all 236 members of the General Assembly and dozens of staffers to self-quarantine for two weeks and sparked outrage from some of Beach's colleagues.

Williams said she doesn’t think lawmakers should return to the Capitol until at least June. And when they do, she said, everyone who will be working in the building should be tested for the coronavirus.

“If we’re going to come back in such close settings, then at least every legislator should be tested,” she said. “Give us the knowledge of what we’re working with.

“This virus is serious — it’s brutal,” Williams said. “I was sick for three weeks straight. I thought I was going to die. I am not willing to ask other people to go through what I went through.”