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.