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Even after Giuliani, House GOP won’t disclose COVID numbers in Michigan Capitol

Lee Chatfield

LANSING—Nearly a month after she was exposed to the virus at work, state Rep. Kyra Bolden still doesn’t know who gave her COVID-19. But she told Bridge Michigan she knows it was someone at the Michigan Capitol and suspects it was a fellow legislator who never publicly announced the diagnosis. 

“For me, [not disclosing] was not an option,” said Bolden, D-Southfield, who announced her positive test results on social media. “It was a personal decision, but I don’t think it should be. I believe that I’m a public servant, and I think anything that affects my representation and my community needs to be disclosed.”

Harris is one of six Michigan lawmakers who disclosed positive coronavirus tests in November, and one of 11 since March, when Rep. Isaac Robinson of Detroit died of the virus.

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A full count is not known because Republican leaders who control the Michigan House won’t disclose the total number of legislators or staff who have contracted the virus, a figure that could soon grow. 

Multiple lawmakers were awaiting test results on Monday after possible exposure to Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney. Giuliani did not wear a mask during more than four hours of legislative testimony in Lansing last week, four days before he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

Transparency advocates and health officials say the lack of a mandatory COVID disclosure policy in the Legislature — where masks are encouraged but not required — puts legislators, staff, reporters and lobbyists who work in and around the Michigan Capitol at risk. 

“There is a lot of room for exposure,” said Lisa McGraw of the Michigan Press Association, who was cheered on by Republicans when she lobbied Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to be transparent in publicly disclosing COVID-19 cases in schools, colleges and nursing homes.

“And yet they’re not willing to disclose this, which is a public health risk,” she said. “The scary part is they all go back to their community. It’s not just that little environment of the Capitol Building and their office buildings. It’s them going home on the weekend.”

On Monday, Bridge asked the House Business Office and Senate Business Office how many legislators and staff have contracted the virus since March. Only the Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s office replied, confirming a total of three senators and 16 employees or interns have reported positive COVID tests to date. 

House Speaker Lee Chatfield’s office has repeatedly declined to answer similar requests by Bridge and other media outlets. 

Given his Sunday hospitalization, it’s“extremely likely” Giuliani was contagious when he testified before the Michigan House Oversight committee on Wednesday, according to Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail, who said anyone at the hearing without a mask or within six feet of Giuliani “must quarantine for the safety of others” through Dec. 12, including lawmakers, staff and audience members.

Chatfield, R-Levering, canceled floor voting for Tuesday as legislators await test results but plans to resume session Wednesday and Thursday. 

But Democrats are calling on Chatfield to require that legislators publicly disclose any diagnosis and toughen workplace safety rules following what Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called a “reckless” and unnecessary visit by Giuliani, who repeated unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and urged Michigan legislators to overturn the Nov. 3 presidential election Democrat Joe Biden won by 154,188 votes. 

‘Anonymous’ with COVID

Bolden, the Southfield Democrat, voluntarily went into quarantine on Nov. 12 when the House Business Office informed her that she’d come into contact with someone who had tested positive that same day. 

“They never disclosed to me who the person was,” she said, noting she’d primarily interacted with fellow legislators on the day in question. “They seek to remain anonymous.”

Still, Bolden said she’s happy the anonymous COVID carrier who gave her the virus at least disclosed the positive diagnosis to the House Business Office. The office in turn conducted contact tracing that prompted the first-term Democrat to quarantine a day before her mother’s 67th birthday. 

“I always go to my mom’s for her birthday, and possibly could have passed it to her had I not been notified,” said Bolden, who said she did not suffer severe symptoms and plans to return to work this week. “It affects different people differently, and I’m just fortunate I didn’t pass it to my husband, who works with veterans, which is a vulnerable population and community.”

Chatfield has touted those contact tracing efforts while refusing to publicly disclose COVID case counts in the Legislature, even after abruptly canceling a full day of session and committee hearings in mid-November without explanation.

GOP state Rep. Scott Van Singel of Grant disclosed his positive COVID-19 test around that time, and Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, later confirmed news reports she had also contracted the virus. But the scope and scale of the legislative outbreak remains a mystery. 

“Anyone who has contracted the virus, whether it's staff or members, the Business Office has been made aware and they have done a very [thorough] contact tracing that I've been very proud of,” Chatfield told Bridge last month. 

“There's no way right now in our communities to eliminate risk. But we have to do all we can to take responsible steps to mitigate that risk. That's what we've done in the House. But I can't share personal health information of our members.”

Health experts say there is no law that would prevent Chatfield from disclosing non-identifying information about COVID-19 cases in the Legislature. It is a choice not to do so. 

The House secrecy has prompted criticism from Whitmer, who last week publicly committed to disclosing results if she ever tests positive for COVID-19, telling reporters she has so far been tested four times in the pandemic, and each came back negative. 

“I think all elected officials in particular should make the same exact commitment, especially in the Legislature that is continuing to meet and has a variety of staff people, as well as press people, as well as the general public who are in and out of” the Capitol, the governor said.

Whitmer on Monday called the recent Giuliani hearing “reckless” and said it had “all the different ingredients of a superspreader event.”

Vail, the Ingham County Health officer, agreed: “We could have mitigated a whole lot of that risk by having everybody wear masks, but it definitely was a risky situation from the get-go,” she said. “This is an exposure that happened in my county where I have an obligation to make public notice, and to specifically notify people who were there.”

As an employer, the Legislature also had a legal duty to report any Lansing outbreaks to the Ingham County Health Department, but that did not happen last month when multiple lawmakers contracted the virus and potentially spread it at the Capitol, Vail told Bridge. 

Giuliani exposure

House Democrats have urged Chatfield to allow for remote voting by videoconference and to require the use of face masks, which are now optional in the Capitol and legislative hearing rooms but must be worn in other workplaces across the state under order by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

“We don’t know how many Republicans have actually contracted COVID — I suspect more than the public knows,” said Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township. He was on his way to get a COVID test Monday morning because he sits on the House Oversight Committee that heard in-person testimony from Giuliani last week. 

“That is just not how any other workplace operates, especially with COVID. In any other workplace, with an exposure, especially something like this where it’s very high profile and everybody knows about it, they would have shut down immediately.” 

Giuliani was reportedly hospitalized on Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19, four days after his testimony in Lansing. He’s one of more than 14.8 million Americans who have contracted the virus since March. Of those, roughly 282,000 have died, including more than 9,850 Michiganders. 

Chatfield on Sunday accused Democrats of using Giuliani’s diagnosis “for personal or political gain,” suggesting that calls for a legislative shutdown or mandatory testing were not warranted because Giuliani “had received two negative tests prior to his Michigan visit.”

According to the Trump campaign, Giuliani tested negative twice “immediately” before leaving Washington, D.C., to testify on Monday of last week in Arizona, two days before his visit to Michigan, where he also sat unmasked beside Michigan GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox during a legal briefing. 

Shortly after Trump announced Giuliani’s positive test on Sunday, officials in Arizona canceled all legislative sessions and committee hearings for this week “out of an abundance of caution for recent cases and concerns relating to COVID-19.”

Chatfield initially resisted calls to cancel any of the six session days left on the Michigan House calendar for 2020. But he relented Monday afternoon, announcing he would not hold any votes on Tuesday because “multiple representatives have requested time to receive results from recent COVID-19 tests before returning to session, out of an abundance of caution.”

In a Sunday night statement, Chatfield argued that even if Giuliani were COVID-positive while in Michigan, “legislators, staff and members of the audience in the committee room were far more than six feet away from him” and so did not need to quarantine under CDC guidelines.

Chatfield and House Oversight Committee Matt Hall, R-Marshall, met with Giuliani’s team before Wednesday’s hearing but wore masks and kept their distance, Chatfield said. “The only people within six feet for an extended period of time in the committee room were his own legal team and witnesses who traveled with him.”   

Several witnesses who testified alongside Giuliani also did not wear face masks, nor did Trump campaign legal counsel Jenna Ellis, who sat closely beside him through the hearing. 

At least two Republicans on the panel, Reps. Steve Johnson of Wayland and John Reilly of Oakland Charter Township, have consistently declined to wear coverings while working in Lansing, and Vail said as many as six other lawmakers may have been in the room to observe the hearing.

Hall did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment on whether he would quarantine but he was planning to get a COVID test, according to Gideon D’Assandro, spokesperson for House Republicans. 

Workplace safety

House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, said Monday morning she had asked Chatfield to cancel both the Tuesday and Wednesday meetings to give the Legislature more time to seek additional details about Giuliani’s diagnosis. 

“If we don’t have that certainty, frankly, I’d rather err on the side of caution and not come in until Thursday at least,” Greig told Bridge, acknowledging the Legislature is already facing a tight timeline to pass pressing bills before the end of the year. 

“I’m all for a balanced approach on what we absolutely have to get done,” she said.

With less than two weeks left in the so-called lame duck session, Whitmer and GOP leaders are negotiating the parameters of a potential state-level economic stimulus that would provide new relief funding to residents and businesses hit hardest by the pandemic. 

For months, Greig has urged Chatfield to allow remote voting so that legislators do not need to travel to Lansing. 

In October, she threatened to file a workplace safety complaint with The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration because of weak COVID and firearm policies at the Capitol, where activists have carried long guns inside during protests over Whitmer’s COVID-19 response and restrictions. 

At the least, GOP leaders should use an existing rule to require legislators to stay in their seats during what could be long meetings in the final days of the lame-duck session, Greig said.

“We have a lot of members that do not wear their masks, and they wander over to all different parts of the chamber, and that’s not fair to anybody,” she told Bridge. “The sergeants are not empowered to enforce members wearing masks, and the speaker and the majority leader don’t seem to be interested in a mask mandate.”

Relying on lawmakers to voluntarily disclose their COVID-19 status is not an adequate workplace safety policy, Greig said, citing reports the virus may have spread among Republicans last month at a post-election party.

“I even had one member of the Republican caucus tell me that he already had COVID, so I shouldn’t worry about him wearing a mask — and this member was never public about it,” she said. “It’s troubling to me that they wouldn't as representatives step up and actually be public about their status so that, frankly, their constituents know they're being represented, but also out of respect for other members too.” 

Democrats had already blasted the Giuliani hearing as an unnecessary “circus”, given the fact he did not present any new evidence to back up the president’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the Michigan election certified to Biden.

Hall, the committee chair, has defended the hearing as a public service even though he and other Republicans rarely challenged claims from Giuliani witnesses that had already been debunked or dismissed by Michigan courts. 

“It’s an utter embarrassment that this is what Michigan is becoming known for: allowing the clown show to make its stop here in Michigan, and then potentially infecting not only legislators, but staff and members of the public,” Rep. Camilleri said. 

“And for what? We learned nothing new. We only got made fun of on national television.”

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