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COVID-19 derails State of the State plans hours before start

  

Parson set to give a speech from Senate chambers Wednesday afternoon instead

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Just hours before Gov. Mike Parson was set to give his annual State of the State address, lawmakers found themselves scrambling to come up with a new plan. 

It seemed the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted much of life in and around the Capitol for nearly a year, had derailed the address as well. 

By Wednesday, just three weeks into the legislative session, multiple senators were out of the building after testing positive for coronavirus or having been exposed to someone who was ill. The House had canceled its proceedings the week prior because of an outbreak on its side of the building. 

Lawmakers were at loggerheads Wednesday morning, according to multiple sources on both sides of the Capitol: Senators did not want to traipse to the lower chamber where multiple members did not wear masks; representatives weren’t too keen on welcoming potentially sick senators to its chamber. 

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade told her members they could skip the State of the State and watch the address remotely due to safety concerns. She said she would attend in their place. 

And aside from COVID-19, the snowy weather in Jefferson City also presented a problem for lawmakers. At least one Republican posted on social media she could not make it to the capital city because of the treacherous conditions. 

“There was nothing we could do,” one lawmaker said. 

At nearly the eleventh hour, Parson’s speech was officially moved to the Senate chambers where a GOP Senate spokesman said officials felt they could better socially distance. House members would be welcome to attend, the spokesperson said. 

“The Senate chamber will ensure attendees can meet CDC guidelines recommending 6 feet of social distancing,” a joint statement from House and Senate leadership released less than two hours before the speech said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped Missourians’ lives in every possible way — underscoring the need for patience and flexibility at home, at school, and in the workplace. This temporary relocation will maximize safety while still honoring the tradition of an in-person address by the governor.”

But there, problems still persisted. Leading up to the address, it was unclear if the Senate would have been able to establish a quorum to convene a joint session. Parson still, however, was granted permission to use the Senate for a speech after the upper chamber adjourned for the day. 

Sens. Eric Burlison, Bill Eigel, Andrew Koenig, Cindy O’Laughlin, Bob Onder, Jeanie Riddle, and John Rizzo were marked absent from the Senate roll call Wednesday morning. Koenig announced last week he had tested positive for COVID-19; Eigel and Rizzo said Tuesday they were in isolation after having been exposed to someone who tested positive.

Eighteen senators are needed to establish a quorum. And House members were not given official guidance on how or where to watch. Some — such as Reps. Nick Schroer, Jim Murphy, Ron Hicks, Peggy McGaugh, and Quade — were in attendance in the fourth-floor gallery. Members of Parson’s Cabinet and other guests were also in socially distant seats in the upper level.

“Republican leaders, from Donald Trump to Mike Parson, have mishandled this pandemic from the beginning,” Rizzo, the Senate minority leader, said. “The governor is continuing to fail with his last-in-the-nation vaccine distribution. Now, his gross mismanagement of this crisis has resulted in the House not allowing him to give his speech in their chamber. The governor’s desire to give a big speech in-person is about vanity and optics. He could easily give this address online from his office without putting anyone else’s health at risk.” 

Governors in other states have opted to give their presentations virtually.

“We give more formality to Model UN classes,” a Senate staffer said, noting those gatherings are able to obtain permission from the chamber to hold an event on the floor. 

The Governor’s Office said it was informed Wednesday morning it could no longer utilize the House chambers for the State of the State.

This story has been updated.