NC lawmakers crowding together, often not wearing masks, while doing state's business

Posted May 21, 2020 7:53 p.m. EDT

— State health leaders have been urging people for weeks to exercise social distancing and wear masks in public, but many state lawmakers don't seem to be following that advice.

Gathering several hundred people together in one building is about the last thing public health officials want right now, but the General Assembly has to do just that to pass any laws and a state budget.

Although everyone who enters the Legislative Building has his or her temperature checked, once inside social distancing is all but impossible. The building was built nearly 60 years ago, and its narrow hallways and stairwells just aren't designed for that.

Lawmakers and staff are almost on top of each other in some committee rooms, and in the House and Senate chambers, lawmakers sit only about 3 feet apart.

"There’s no way to avoid being close to somebody eventually, but I think most people are being as cautious as they can and being as respectful as they can to someone else," said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow.

House leaders have been holding video-conference committee meetings and even allowing some voting by proxy to keep people apart.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said the Senate should be following the House's lead to cut down on the number of people in the building at one time.

Masks are recommended by legislative leaders, but they’re not required.

When the session started last month, there was a clear partisan divide – all of the Democrats were wearing them, but very few Republicans were. These days, it's more bipartisan, although many Republicans still don't wear them.

Brown said that's more about the individual’s comfort level than about party.

"I’ve got one in my pocket as well. If I’m in a big crowd, where I feel like, I’ll wear mine," he said. "So, I think it’s been left up to the individual."

While kitchen and housekeeping staff wear masks, most legislative staffers and General Assembly Police officers don't.

Chaudhuri said masks should be required of everyone in the building.

"[It's] looking out not only for our public health but the public health of others, too," he said.

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