A Republican lawmaker in the New Mexico House of Representatives and four staff members at the Roundhouse have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The cases at the Capitol come just two weeks into a 60-day legislative session that requires everyone but lawmakers to receive weekly nasal COVID-19 tests to be admitted into the building.

In an email late Thursday, House Republican spokesman Matthew Garcia-Sierra wrote that he had been “informed one of our members tested positive, and I am also aware that there were four other positive cases.”

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said by phone Thursday the infected male lawmaker is asymptomatic and doing fine.

Townsend said a Department of Health doctor told him earlier in the day that there were at least four other cases in the Capitol.

Townsend said he spoke about the issue by phone Thursday night with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. He said Egolf wants to limit in-person participation in future House floor sessions.

Earlier, House members voted to run a mostly virtual session, though lawmakers in that chamber have the option of being in person at the Capitol for floor debates or participating via Zoom from their offices.

If they choose to take part in person, they must remain at their desks, fortified with protective plexiglass walls, and communicate via Zoom.

Egolf did not return a call seeking comment. He issued a news release around 10 p.m. Thursday, wishing for a “fast and full recovery” for the legislator and staff members who contracted the virus.

“My office is taking this situation very seriously, and the Department of Health is conducting the necessary contact tracing to identify any additional positive cases in order to prevent further spread within the building,” he wrote in the release.

“I was dismayed to learn today that the Republican caucus had a catered luncheon within the Capitol on Monday, at which members did not wear masks, and gathered in a small space,” Egolf wrote.

Townsend denied Egolf’s characterization of the gathering.

“One member went out and picked up Chinese food — individual luncheons and wrapped containers — and brought them back to Capitol,” he said. “I ate mine in my office. I know many others ate them in their offices. It wasn’t catered.”

Egolf wrote he was taking “immediate steps within the House to protect the safety and health of staff and members.”



Among those measures, he added, will be that all committee rooms in the Capitol will be closed and all committee hearings will be held exclusively by Zoom. In addition, lawmakers cannot congregate in any rooms in the Capitol to take part in those meetings.

And future House floor sessions will be limited to three lawmakers — Egolf, Townsend and Majority Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a Democrat from Albuquerque — or someone designated who can stand in for all three if need be.

Before the session began Jan. 19, lawmakers from both parties had asked if the session could be delayed because of fears of spreading the potentially deadly respiratory illness.

Townsend said Thursday that despite a state constitutional mandate requiring lawmakers to be present on the third Tuesday of January to start the session, legislators could have come in, quickly moved to get important legislation going and then “gotten out of there.”

“We could have then allowed those people who wanted to be vaccinated to get vaccinated and come back in 21 days. We could have had our second shot [by then], and we would have been 90 percent protected. All those people working for us would have been protected.”

Spokesman Garcia-Sierra said Republican lawmakers and staff members have been told to stay home Friday. He said staffers in the House Republican office who think they may have been exposed to the infected lawmaker have been ordered to “immediately quarantine for 14 days” and get tested.

“Tomorrow [Friday] our staff and membership will work from home, virtually, and we will work with the DOH [Department of Health] and Capitol staff to figure out how we move forward with the one case in our caucus and the four other cases that are around the building,” he said.

Before the session began, administrators at the Capitol decided that regular visitors to the downtown facility, including staff and members of the media, would be required to get weekly tests for COVID-19.

But, they said, state lawmakers could not be required to take the test, though testing is offered to them on a regular basis.

When senators were developing rules ahead of the session, mandatory nasal testing of COVID-19 for lawmakers was a lively topic of discussion.

“If you think I’m a threat, folks, stay away from me,” state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said at the Jan. 6 meeting. “But I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow somebody to jab a Q-tip up my nose every five days.”

Ezzell did not return an email seeking comment late Thursday.

Townsend said he thinks a temporary halt should be put to the session while leaders from the House and Senate meet to talk about how to proceed.

“I think it would behoove us to stop long enough to figure out a better way to do it,” he said.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

(11) comments

Russell Scanlon

Well aside from the fact that’s NM is overwhelmingly Democratic because that’s how it’s citizens voted, the GOP being quarantined is entirely it’s own fault. So I’m not sure what the point is.

JB Weinberg

My sentiments exactly.

Mike Johnson

How convenient for the left wing. Maybe they can get all the conservatives quarantined for the remainder of the session, so they have no opposition at all to their agenda. Sounds so familiar, the same kind of thing happened to my great grandfather at the 1910 NM Constitutional Convention, engineered by the old Santa Fe Ring, the new one seems to operate the same way.....

Russell Scanlon

I didn’t even need to read past the headline to know that this would involve a Republican who refused to wear a “face diaper”. Honestly—when did willful ignorance become a party plank for the GOP?

You guys are killing us—literally

Craig Meyer

1980

MC Gurule

There are other employees employed with the legislature who service these individuals who "choose" not to wear a mask. I hope the supervisors of these other employees understand when their staff "chooses" not to service them because of this. They are, after all, our law makers and should respect individuals who ask them to wear their mask when in their presence.

NICHOLAS KNORR

It does seem time to put a halt to the in person legislation. I mind meetings or affective, and I don't know what purpose is worth that to have all of these people together in a physical Room. If you need technology help you should seek it. And as for the republicans who is surprised? And what does this all cost the taxpayer. I would rather pay for the technology

Diane Denish

Rep. Townsend has consistently ignored the public health orders and has done nothing to encourage even his own constituents in SE NM to comply. Instead of being a voice for safety, he has been a voice for criticizing the Governor, her emergency powers, and the public health orders. No one should be surprised if the entire GOP caucus becomes infected or were infected in the last year. (anyone ask Townsend if he had COVID at any time?) SE NM continues to have one of the highest positivity rates. Between Townsend, Ezell, Steve Pearce, it's a wonder it isn't higher.

Mike Johnson

Indeed, perhaps all the conservatives will just die off, so that the left wing will not have to spend money competing against them anymore........

Sloan Cunningham

[thumbup]

Donato Velasco

they are not following the rules, where are the fines...

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Santafenewmexican.com. Please familiarize yourself with the community guidelines. Avoid personal attacks: Lively, vigorous conversation is welcomed and encouraged, insults, name-calling and other personal attacks are not. No commercial peddling: Promotions of commercial goods and services are inappropriate to the purposes of this forum and can be removed. Respect copyrights: Post citations to sources appropriate to support your arguments, but refrain from posting entire copyrighted pieces. Be yourself: Accounts suspected of using fake identities can be removed from the forum.