Buford lawmaker refuses COVID test, removed from House chamber

    Rep. David Clark, a Buford Republican, makes his case to reporters in the Capitol after he was removed from the House chamber for refusing to take a required COVID-19 test. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

    A state representative was escorted out of the House chamber Tuesday for refusing to get tested for COVID-19.

    The Legislature has leaned on a twice-a-week testing surveillance program as part of its plan to control the spread of the coronavirus so lawmakers can continue to meet under the Gold Dome. Face masks are also required in the chambers, and state representatives are spread out across the chamber, the gallery and a meeting room to leave room for social distancing.

    Last year, the pandemic caused lawmakers to abruptly suspend the session in mid-March, and legislators are racing to button up changes to this year’s budget so there will at least be an updated spending plan in place through the end of June.

    Rep. David Clark, a Buford Republican, is the only person in the House who has refused to take a free, on-site test or provide negative results from on off-site test, according to House Speaker David Ralston’s spokesman, Kaleb McMichen.

    At first, Ralston asked Clark – without naming him – to quietly leave the floor on his own to go take a test. When he refused, Ralston asked state troopers to escort him off the floor. The speaker said Clark could return once he is tested. Clark also lost his office space at the legislative office building because McMichen said he “continues to pose a health risk to everyone on Capitol Hill.”

    “I don’t know about y’all but I’ve been to too many funerals, and I’m getting tired of going to them,” Ralston said from his perch. “I don’t know when this will end. We all pray that it will be sooner rather than later, but until that time, I think it behooves us to do whatever we need to do to be safe and to show love toward our neighbors – rather than go out there and get media attention for standing up to authority.”

    Clark told reporters at the Capitol after his removal that he thinks it’s wrong for lawmakers to have access to testing twice a week when that level of testing is as not as accessible to most Georgians.

    “The people sent me down here, my district mandated me to come down here to represent the people,” Clark said. “I checked my temperature when I came in, I go into the chambers, I’m wearing my mask. I follow the protocols that they want in the chamber, but two tests a week is wrong on my conscience when teachers can’t get it and first responders can’t get it.”

    The Legislature’s surveillance program has already identified positive cases at the state Capitol. Three senators tested positive in the first week, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan.

    The Carrollton Republican returned Tuesday for the first time since testing positive for the coronavirus on Jan.12, the second day of the session.

    Dugan implored his fellow lawmakers to take the virus seriously, remarking how important it is to wear masks, get tested and take other precautions.

    “Two-and-a-half weeks ago, I was 10 feet tall and bulletproof and then the virus got me as well,” he said. “And it was uncomfortable, to say the least. But the thing that would have caused me greater discomfort is if I had known that I had passed that virus to somebody else.”

    Clark led a failed attempt in 2019 to pressure Ralston to resign for his use of a law that allowed him to delay criminal proceedings that conflicted with his legislative duties. Ralston is an attorney back home in Blue Ridge. Clark unsuccessfully challenged Ralston last year for speaker.

    “If it was the grandstanding, he hates the speaker, blah, blah, blah – fine, you get to do that. You don’t get to jeopardize the health and safety of the public,” McMichen told reporters, saying they were just trying to “keep people from dying.”

    Georgia Recorder reporters Ross Williams and Stanley Dunlap contributed to this report. 

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.