As pandemic continues, COVID-19 precautions fade at Georgia Capitol

Georgia lawmakers and staff line up to get their COVID-19 tests early in this year's legislative session. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Georgia lawmakers and staff line up to get their COVID-19 tests early in this year's legislative session. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The first month of the 2022 Georgia legislative session has looked vastly different than it did last year — the halls are bustling, nearly all masks are gone, as are the socially distanced committee rooms and House floor layout.

As we head into the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, most people who spend their days under the Gold Dome have grown weary of following the recommended guidelines to keep them safe.

Though House members are required to wear masks while in the chamber and committee rooms, Senate Republican leadership has only suggested that those who are not vaccinated wear masks. That means few senators and Senate staffers wear them, and that has bled into the lobbyists who spend their days talking to and meeting with lawmakers. Even fewer Capitol police officers wear masks.

“It’s not pandemic anymore, it’s an endemic reality that we all have to learn to live with,” said Steve Tippins, chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. Miller’s office writes the COVID-19 protocols for the Senate. “And I think people are slowly coming to terms with that — some people come to terms with it faster than others.”

The shift is not isolated to Georgia, as legislatures across the country have begun to loosen their COVID-19 protocols.

“I’ve always believed in doing what the speaker said to do — (he) said there’s got to be some rules, so I wear my mask when I’m in the Capitol,” said Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist. “I don’t like it, but I do it.”

All legislators and legislative employees are expected to take twice weekly COVID-19 tests, as they did last year, and despite the lax approach to wearing masks, Tippins said lawmakers have mostly participated in the tests.

“To some extent, people are still taking it seriously, whether that’s because they’re their own personal fears, their own personal desire to be kind to their fellow man or just for team morale,” Tippins said.

Of the senators, Senate staff and interns who are being tested at the Capitol, 22 tested positive for COVID-19 this year. That’s a slight increase from 20 positive test results by this time last year. The House does not release information about positive test results in that chamber.

“When members or staff return a positive test result, they receive a phone call notifying them and telling them to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to only return when it is safe to do so,” said Kaleb McMichen, spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “To this point, everyone who has tested positive has complied with that guidance with the exception of a single recent case.”

Earlier this month, state Rep. David Clark was denied access to the Georgia House floor after he tested positive for the coronavirus. Clark, a Republican from Buford, criticized Ralston for trying to “silence” him. Clark said he’d taken five other tests since his positive result and each came back negative.

In the Georgia House, masks are supposed to be mandatory, but enforcement has waned. While most legislators follow the rules, some routinely refuse to wear them. Legislators from both parties remove their masks to have close conversations, and no one wears masks when they address the chamber.

Masking compliance is worse in House committees, where representatives are rarely, if ever, reminded by committee chairmen that they’re supposed to be masked up.

As of Friday, there have been nearly 1.9 million cases of COVID-19 in Georgia since March 2020 and 28,560 deaths, according to data from the Department of Public Health. The agency reported 2,899 new cases and 99 deaths from COVID-19 on Friday. The highest single-day number of deaths since the pandemic is 139 confirmed deaths in January 2021.

Herring had a theory for why so few people at the Capitol are wearing masks despite the fact the the virus is still causing the deaths of so many Georgians.

“It’s a combination of juvenile defiance, people who are just too lazy don’t want to be inconvenienced and a handful of ideologues,” he said. “I think that the idea that personal freedom is at stake — if your freedom is that pathetic, I don’t want it.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.