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Mississippi seeing big coronavirus outbreak in state Legislature

Cars line up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center on the Capitol grounds in Jackson, Mississippi
Cars line up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center on the Capitol grounds in Jackson, Miss., on Monday. At least 26 legislators and 10 other Capitol workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

Packed elevators and crowded committee rooms. Legislators sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the House and Senate floors. People standing close to each other and talking, sometimes leaning in to whisper, without a mask in sight.

Those were common scenes at the Mississippi Capitol in June — a month that saw a historic vote to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag — and now at least 26 lawmakers have contracted the coronavirus in the biggest known outbreak in any state legislature in the nation.

That works out to about 1 in 7 Mississippi legislators.

Among those testing positive in the heavily Republican body are the GOP presiding officers, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann.

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None of the lawmakers has been hospitalized, according to state officials.

President Trump has resisted wearing a mask, and many other Republicans around the country have cast face coverings and social distancing mandates as infringements on their freedom.

But around the Mississippi Capitol, not wearing a mask — or wearing one pushed below the chin — was a bipartisan activity in recent weeks. At the same time, plenty of other lawmakers from both parties covered their faces and took other precautions.

Mississippi has seen a rapid rise in confirmed cases in the last two weeks, with the total hitting nearly 33,600 by Thursday, including at least 1,200 deaths.

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In addition to the legislators, at least 10 people who work in the Capitol have tested positive for the virus, the state health officer said Wednesday. And the numbers could well be higher: The figures are based only on Health Department testing done in Jackson, including drive-through testing Monday at the Capitol. Some members were tested after returning to their hometowns beginning July 1.

“If you have been in contact with anyone in the Legislature, or if you have been in contact with any staff person that works at the Legislature, you need to get tested,” warned Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who has tested negative.

Reeves has urged people to wear masks and maintain social distancing, but he has not always done those things himself. He went bare-faced at the funeral of a deputy sheriff and while signing a bill to change the flag.

Republican state Sen. Chad McMahan, who has tested negative, said Thursday that he washed his hands often and did his best to keep his distance from others at the Capitol. But he skipped wearing a mask because “it’s quite uncomfortable.”

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Mississippi legislators — there were 172 most of this session — were supposed to meet from January through April but went home in mid-March because of the outbreak. They returned briefly in May during a feud with the governor over spending coronavirus relief money from the federal government.


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