Lawmakers frustrated that colleague attended session despite illness

By: - March 20, 2020 7:12 am

“Due to the current predicament, there will be less, and there’s no reason to sugarcoat that,” said Sen. Blake Tillery, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We don’t hold the keys to a printing press.” John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Georgia legislators expressed frustration with a state senator who attended a called session at the Capitol this week despite feeling sick. Wednesday he announced that he’d tested positive for COVID-19.

Georgia’s 236 lawmakers are now urged to remain in self-quarantine until at least March 30, or 14 days after Alpharetta Republican Sen. Brandon Beach appeared at the Capitol for a session to grant the governor emergency powers to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. Many officials posted messages Wednesday and Thursday on social media to say they haven’t experienced any COVID-19 symptoms, but they are following recommendations to isolate themselves from the public during the pandemic.

State Sen. Donzella James, a Democrat from Atlanta, criticized Beach and other top state officials she says might have known a lawmaker was sick before the session was suspended indefinitely.

“I know it’s something that we’ve never experienced before but still don’t expose us to things when you have a clue there is something wrong,” she said following Thursday’s conference call among Democratic senators.

Sen. Chuck Payne, a Dalton Republican, said he’s not upset with Beach, who expressed contrition while speaking with some GOP legislators by phone this week. 

“I think people have come to terms of understanding that this is serious, and how seriously we take it up front is going to benefit us in the end,” Payne said.

Beach said he decided to show up Monday after the initial doctor’s diagnosis advised he did not have COVID-19 after he sought treatment for a fever and a cough.

State Sen. Brandon Beach

His positive test prompted the state Department of Public Health to send a memo to legislators urging them to monitor their health while remaining at home for two weeks. Legislators were warned to stay away from other people if they experience systems such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath.

“I know I face a difficult two weeks, but I’ll work to keep everyone updated on my progress,” Beach said in a statement. “With the support of my wife – who is keeping a safe distance and so far doesn’t have symptoms – and my family and friends, I know I’ll get through this and get back to work for my constituents.”

At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Gov. Brian Kemp pointed to the situation as a teachable moment as Georgia sees a spike in the number of coronavirus cases.

“I would just say that this is a good example of why we need people to follow our advice and follow the advice of their medical provider,” Kemp said when asked about Beach’s decision to show up at the Capitol while experiencing symptoms. “Stay home if you are sick. If there’s any doubt, stay home.

“We’ve had this happen in many places around the state with sick individuals attending funerals, which has created one of the hot spots that we have around the state,” he said, referring to the outbreak in Albany. “And I think this is a good example that we can all learn from.”

Lawmakers suspended the 2020 legislative session indefinitely last week as the NCAA canceled Atlanta’s Final Four championship, pro sports teams suspended events and school closed across the states. Meanwhile, legislators are fielding calls about the pandemic and using social media to keep residents updated.

Republican Sen. Renee Unterman and Sen. President Pro-Tempore Butch Miller released statements Thursday they don’t have coronavirus symptoms but are going to heed the advice of public health officials and self-quarantine.

Other House and Senate legislators also reacted to the latest developments, including Rep. Scot Turner, a Republican from Holly Springs, who said in a Facebook message that he was “shaking with rage” about Beach.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Rep. Scot Turner is a Republican from Holly Springs. 

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.