“If we’re all sick, we can’t legislate”: Coronavirus cases at Texas Capitol put lawmakers further on edge

A state trooper stood guard outside the door to the House chamber Jan. 12, opening day of the legislative session. (Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)
A state trooper stood guard outside the door to the House chamber Jan. 12, opening day of the legislative session. (Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

Texas lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Tuesday two weeks after kicking off their session with the adoption of varying rules to protect against the coronavirus.

But since the Legislature gaveled in for its 2021 session, at least four House members have announced they tested positive for the virus, forcing some colleagues into quarantine and renewing discussion about whether the rules go far enough.

While it’s unlikely the rules will be revisited in either chamber anytime soon, the developments have put some lawmakers further on edge as they prepare for months of legislating in relatively close quarters.

“There’s not a good answer for this, that’s the problem,” Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, told The Texas Tribune last week. “But if we’re all sick, we can’t legislate. And we’re on a time crunch.”

Beckley was one of a handful of lawmakers who said they would self-quarantine after Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, confirmed he had tested positive for the virus at the end of the first week of session. Deshotel had been on the House floor for three straight days and did not receive a test before entering the Capitol on Tuesday or Wednesday.

News of Deshotel’s positive test also came the day after the House adopted chamber rules for the session, which included requiring members to wear masks in the chamber and during committee hearings but did not mandate testing for lawmakers, staff or members of the public.

The Senate, meanwhile, adopted its own set of rules that requires senators to wear masks except while seated at their desks in the chamber and to test negative before going onto the floor. Those rules also require members of the public to test before entering the chamber gallery.

Lawmakers learned Monday that the coronavirus was altering the session in another way: Gov. Greg Abbott will give his State of the State address on Feb. 1 from a small business in Central Texas — rather than packing all 181 state legislators and other statewide officials into the House chamber per usual.