The Legislature successfully tested a virtual attendance option, but Republican leadership has stopped allowing it.
While state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) was not certain he had COVID-19 when he requested to attend Wednesday’s Senate floor session virtually, he had good reason to believe he had contracted the illness: His daughter had tested positive, and he was showing symptoms himself.
Despite Larson being in self-quarantine and awaiting test results, the Senate’s Republican leadership barred him from tuning virtually into the floor session. Larson did not attend the session, but by its end, he had received a positive test result.
“As a legislator, I don’t expect anybody to cry any rivers for me not being there, but I think it’s emblematic of [GOP] policies around COVID and not treating with the severity that it’s deserved for the last year,” Larson told UpNorthNews in a Thursday phone call.
He said he’s not sure why Republicans are forcing completely in-person attendance, but thinks it may have to do with them following the lead of former President Donald Trump, who spread countless conspiracies and falsehoods about the pandemic.
“If there is any logic, or if there is any strategy behind it, I think … they don’t want people to think the pandemic is real,” he said.
The legislative session began with virtual Senate attendance being allowed, but in-person attendance became mandatory on March 23, said Adam Gibbs, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg). Gibbs said LeMahieu made the change due to technical issues and “distractions” in the previous week’s floor session.
“It became clear that was not going to be a viable option to maintain the order and integrity of the body,” Gibbs said.
Larson’s experience Wednesday was not the first time Republican lawmakers in either chamber have shut Democrats out of remote participation.
During a mostly virtual Senate session last April, then-Senate President Roger Roth (R-Appleton) muted Milwaukee Democrats Lena Taylor and Tim Carpenter and did not count their votes. And in 2019, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) refused to let Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg), who uses a wheelchair, call into committee meetings and accused him of “political grandstanding.”
Vos is also requiring in-person attendance to Assembly floor sessions despite the ongoing pandemic.
“In this case, the 172,000 people that I represent for the state of Wisconsin didn’t get their voice registered on Wednesday,” Larson said.
Larson said he caught COVID-19 despite following all necessary safety precautions such as masking and limiting nonessential trips; he had even previously received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. He said he has mild symptoms and general fatigue, but feels 90% okay.
“It’s [like] a low-level hangover,” Larson said. “Not like post-opening day, but more, you know, post-Friday night.”