House Speaker Brian Egolf
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
House Speaker Brian Egolf met virtually with members of the press Friday morning to discuss the situation at the Roundhouse where confirmed cases of COVID-19 were announced late Friday evening.
Egolf said his office and the Democratic Majority have been taking the issue of COVID-19 extremely seriously.
“We adopted COVID safe practices for the entire legislature. We went through a process of changing our House rules including not requiring members’ presence on the House floor or in committee rooms. We have established in the building with the cooperation of the Senate a surveillance testing protocol and have 100 percent of employees tested on a weekly basis as well as testing for members that wish to take advantage of that,” he said. “We have been working hard through cleaning of the building, through reassigning spaces in the building to give members the ability to be inside the Capitol, to be simultaneously physically distant from one another so that they can be here and do their work safely if they don’t wish to connect to the session from offsite.”
Egolf said he was sending thoughts to those who have tested positive for COVID and that it was his understanding that the member of the House that tested positive is asymptomatic which he called good news. He said he wanted to set forward the facts because there was “some widely reported information from the Minority press office that was inaccurate”.
He noted that on Jan. 16, three days before the legislature began, there were two positive tests among law enforcement personnel and that those individuals had not been in the building and did not participate in the session. There was one positive case on Jan 21, one on Jan. 26 and one on Jan. 27.
“There was one positive outside the legislature’s surveillance testing program who tested positive offsite. They were not in the building. The first day in the building they received notice of the positive test and immediately left the building. The Department of Health is conducting their routine contact tracing protocols to get in touch with everybody that was in close contact with the positive case,” Egolf said, adding that everyone who tested positive is in the 14 day quarantine period.
“We are adopting some additional measures going forward. I am using the authority vested in me by the constitution and the rules of the House to restrict access to the floor to myself or my designee as well as one member of the leadership of each party or their designee as well as a few essential staff that are necessary on the floor like the chief clerk and those who operate the technology,” he said. “As well, members of the minority have requested access to unused committee rooms so that they could gather together to participate in House committee meetings via the Zoom platform but with all of them together in the same room.”
Egolf said he has observed repeat violations of the mask requirement so effective immediately the access to those committee rooms has been revoked.
“They are free to participate in all of the committees but will need to do so not in a congregate setting and not in any rooms provided by the House other than their private offices,” he said.
Egolf said the House is proceeding with cleaning and other sanitation methods and following all Department of Health guidance to manage the situation.
“The important work of the legislature continues. Committee meetings are happening in both the Senate and the House and they will continue. The people of New Mexico elected us to do a job – to come here and provide them with relief and recovery from COVID-19 – and that is exactly what we are doing. A whole range of COVID related bills are proceeding quickly through the legislature and we hope to have them up to the governor by the middle of February,” Egolf said. “The people of New Mexico can’t wait and can’t afford the time for the legislature to adjourn and return later in the year. The Senate and the House feel strongly that we need to continue to do work and continue to do it in a way that is as safe as possible.”
Egolf told press members including the Los Alamos Reporter, that House Republicans had contacted his office for permission to bring food in.
“They acknowledged that House Republicans had a caucus meeting on Monday where they brought in catering so I learned of it because they told me. I was dismayed. Obviously,if you’re in a small committee room and you are eating, you’re not wearing your mask,” he said.
Egolf said leadership in both chambers is committed to doing the people’s business and doing it in a way that is as possible. He said during floor sessions thus far, it has been virtually all the Republican caucuses on the floor and the Democrats have been three or four with the rest in their Capitol offices or working from home.
“I have observed is that certain members of the Republican Party do not adhere to COVID-safe practices in any meaningful way. I am constantly having to remind members to put on a mask and have the mask cover their nose and mouth whether it’s in committee meetings where I had one member in a room with other Republican members not wearing masks. I instructed him to follow the rules and put the mask on and instead of doing that, he tilted the camera on his laptop so that I couldn’t see the lower half of his face. It’s that kind of childish behavior that we’ve been seeing the entire session. It is extremely frustrating and we need to make sure that folks make responsible decisions so that we can conduct the people’s business in a safe way,” he said.
Asked about adjourning the session and coming back later, Egolf said there is no reason to delay the session.
“We have got to deliver COVID-related relief to the people of New Mexico – that is what we were elected to do – and we are doing so in a way that is as protective of the safety of the staff and the members as possible. As to why the Republicans are placing their physical location over the substance of the work, I can’t explain that. That is their position,” he said. “There is no need to delay the session and there is no desire to delay the session among leadership in either chamber so we are going to continue and we’re going to enhance the safety measures so that we can do so in a way that is as protective as possible. At the same time we’re asking grocery store workers to go to work, we’re asking health care workers to go to work and the people of New Mexico are asking the legislative staff and membership to go to work so that we can provide them the relief that they need.”
Egolf said leadership of the Senate on a strong bipartisan basis believes that the work in the session needs to continue, that it is not a partisan issue in the Senate and that leadership in the Senate is committed to following COVID-safe practices.
“Really unfortunately it is only the leadership of the House Minority that is calling for delaying the session,” Egolf said.