COVID clouds legislative session, from illness to test resistance

By: - January 29, 2021 5:00 am

House Speaker David Ralston on Thursday commended legislators who have gotten COVID-19 testing and are wearing masks as he’s done since the start of the 2021 session. He also criticized Rep. David Clark, who returned Thursday after being escorted out of the House Tuesday for skipping required tests. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The lone state representative kicked out of the House chamber for refusing to take a COVID-19 test returned to the Capitol Thursday for the first time since law enforcement escorted him out the door Tuesday.

Rep. David Clark reversed a stand to skip the House’s twice-a-week testing guidelines after condemnations from many of his fellow Republicans and more than a few Democrats who share meeting spaces for not following safety protocols put in place for the session.

House Speaker David Ralston cleared the way for Clark to return but his spokesman said he will take a wait-and-see approach before deciding if the Buford Republican will get his office space back

Rep. David Clark, a Buford Republican, returned to the state Capitol Thursday after taking his mandated COVID-19 tests. On Tuesday, Clark said he was being discriminated against after being escorted out of the House chamber for not following protocols. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Clark did not respond to email and phone messages left by the Georgia Recorder on Thursday, but he told reporting partner, Georgia Public Broadcasting, that he took a private test as well as the one offered to lawmakers

Ralston called Clark’s claim that he skipped his required COVID testing because of the cost to  taxpayers is “ludicrous.” 

“Let him go tell that to people whose family members and friends are dying and have died,” Ralston said at a press conference Thursday.

Georgia lawmakers are pushing to get through the legislative session with minimal interruption after the COVID pandemic’s public arrival in Georgia sent lawmakers home from mid-March to early June. 

The Legislature’s testing surveillance program is catching cases of the disease among lawmakers and staff. Three state senators tested positive for COVID-19 in the first days of the session early this month, including Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Carrollton Republican.

The House is not releasing its testing results, but Ralston said Thursday that a few state representatives have tested positive.

“In terms of some of the numbers that we’ve seen, I think we’ve been fortunate overall. But we’re very, very mindful of that,” Ralston said.

Standing in stark contrast to Clark’s resistance to testing and maskless appearance Tuesday, Rep. Dexter Sharper alerted his colleagues to his personal struggles with the coronavirus.

Rep. Dexter Sharper, a Valdosta Democrat, relies on an oxygen tank for a respiratory condition caused after contracting COVID-19 in December. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Last month the healthy 49-year-old got sick. He now relies on an oxygen tank to breathe after contracting a case of the coronavirus in mid-December that landed him in the hospital.

The COVID-19 disease has changed the Valdosta Democrat’s everyday routines. He expects to find out in a month if his respiratory loss is permanent. 

Sharper implores fellow lawmakers and all Georgians to get tested, wear face masks and practice social distancing for the long road ahead. Although the most at-risk Georgians are starting to receive COVID-19 vaccines, the state’s top public health official says it might be many months before all state residents can get a shot. 

“It’s not just you looking out for yourself; it’s you looking out for the people that you love and people that you care about,” said Sharper, a business owner and paramedic. “Because you can be asymptomatic and be positive and pass it on to someone else, and the next thing you know they’re gone.”

House Minority Leader James Beverly said he’s glad that most lawmakers are adhering to the protocols.

“I think if we practice safety first, we’ll be in good shape,” the Macon Democrat said. “I’m glad (Clark’s) back into the fold.”

Ralston said he thanked legislators who “for whatever reason” didn’t take their next obligated test but instead of coming into the chamber that day, they instead watched from somewhere else. 

Rep. Steven Sainz, a Woodbine Republican, opted earlier this week to watch a livestream of the session online while waiting for his test results.

The Speaker praised Sainz’s and other legislators’ caution while taking a swipe at Clark.

“That’s the right thing to do,” Ralston said. “The wrong thing to do is to come down here and parade around in front of TV cameras and turn this thing into some kind of foolish circus.”

Some legislators battled the virus before the 2021 General Assembly started, including Sen. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat who spent ten days hospitalized last year, and U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who tested positive in April while serving in the state Senate. 

And Clark’s father-in-law, Sen. Brandon Beach, was criticized by colleagues when he showed up to the Capitol while he experienced COVID symptoms in March.

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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. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.