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Missouri lawmakers return to work amid coronavirus pandemic

Missouri lawmakers on Wednesday were beginning what’s guaranteed to be an unusual legislative session as the state continues its battle with the coronavirus pandemic.

Precautions will be in place to avoid the spread of COVID-19 during the Republican-led Legislature’s roughly five-month annual session, although rules primarily apply to staffers and not lawmakers.

House and Senate administrative staff must wear face masks, for example. The Senate is limiting staff seating in committee rooms, and the House is allowing employees to work from home when practical.

Lawmakers are strongly encouraged to wear masks, but that’s not required.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, who himself tested positive for COVID-19 but has since recovered, said healthcare and other essential workers are on the frontlines daily. He said lawmakers are “going to have to do the same thing” and find a way to work safely.

“Maybe by the middle of summer we might have this thing a little bit further behind us,” Schatz said. “But until then I plan on us moving forward and continuing business in the best way we can.”

When legislators last convened for a special session shortly after the Nov. 3 election, their work was delayed into December after several lawmakers and staff tested positive for COVID-19.

State Rep. Brenda Shields, told The Associated Press she tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 12, after spending the previous days in Jefferson City. Shields said she regularly wore a mask and doesn’t know how she contracted the virus.

At first, her symptoms appeared mild, like a head cold with fatigue. But two weeks later, Shields said she experienced “extreme heaviness” in her chest. Doctors said her lung capacity was less than 50% — as if she was a lifelong smoker, though she’s never smoked — and that she also had developed heart issues from the virus. Shields said her recovery could take up to six months, and she hopes colleagues learn from her experience.

“Some people have COVID and it comes and goes and life continues on. You never know when you might be the person who ends up being the long-hauler,” said Shields, a Republican from St. Joseph. “So I encourage them to wear a mask and to take care of themselves.”

The Capitol is still open to the public. On days when the Legislature is in session, entrants will have their temperatures taken and be questioned about possible illness or exposure.

Public seating will be spaced out in House and Senate committee hearings for social distancing. The Senate also provides live audio streaming of its committee hearings and sessions, and the House livestreams video of its public meetings.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade said Democrats plan to propose additional COVID-19 safety restrictions for House members, including mandatory face masks in shared spaces.

“As far as I have been told, it’s going to be business as usual, which is obviously very unacceptable to me,” she said.

Lawmakers also will focus on pandemic-related policies in their work.

Schatz said a top goal for Republican lawmakers is to pass a bill shielding businesses and health care workers from being sued for alleged misconduct related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an influential business association, are both pushing lawmakers to pass the policy.

Parson had added passing the bill on lawsuits to lawmakers’ to-do list during a special session on federal coronavirus aid last year. He later dropped his last-minute request, instead leaving it to lawmakers to address during their longer annual session this year.

Several lawmakers this year have proposed checks or limits on local officials’ ability to close businesses, require masks or issue other health-related orders.

One bill would allow mayors or other local executives to shut down businesses, churches, schools and public gatherings for up to 15 days at a time. Any longer than that and shutdowns would need to be approved by the city or county governing board, state health department or the Legislature. Another proposal would exempt churches and places of worship from social-distancing requirements.

Schatz said he’s not sure how successful those proposals will be.

The governor will outline his policy goals and budget recommendations during a State of the State speech Jan. 27.

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