GOP lawmaker’s positive COVID-19 test cancels voting session

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This is an exterior view of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in downtown Harrisburg, Pa. Tuesday, Sept. 14, 1999. (AP Photo/Paul Vathis)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Republican lawmaker’s positive test for COVID-19 on Thursday prompted legislative leaders to immediately cancel the day’s Pennsylvania House voting session, and human resources workers were deployed to trace his personal contacts to see if others should be quarantined.

Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, issued a statement saying he began to feel sick on Wednesday and got the positive test result Thursday. He then notified House officials. He was most recently in the Capitol on Tuesday.

Although state House employees are all required to wear masks in the Capitol, that does not apply to the representatives themselves. Schemel’s press release did not say if he had been wearing a mask while inside the Capitol’s public spaces.

He declined an interview request from The Associated Press.

A significant number of House Republicans have continued to be maskless inside the Capitol, and some have defiantly ridiculed mask wearing as an overreaction or ineffective.

During a gun-rights rally on the Capitol steps on Tuesday, several House GOP members were not wearing masks amid the crowd of a few hundred at the outdoor event. Others were maskless in the Rotunda and hallways.

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, who has been vocal in his opposition to mask wearing, said Schemel’s test result would not change his own behavior, or his belief that masks do not help prevent the spread of infection.

“I’ve seen him wearing a mask,” Diamond said. “So you know, it is what it is.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top health officials have reiterated their pleas for people to wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines to stymie the spread of the virus.

Schemel, a 48-year-old lawyer who lives in Greencastle, is completing is third term in the House, representing a rural area where Interstate 81 crosses the Maryland state line. Messages seeking comment were left with his House spokesman and at his law firm.

He is the second House Republican to test positive for COVID-19. In May, Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, waited a week before he disclosed his diagnosis, prompting angry objections from Democrats. Lewis has since recovered from the illness.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have continued to meet during the pandemic under rules that permit lawmakers to vote from home or from their Capitol offices, or to vote in person.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For older adults, people with existing health problems and some others, it can cause severe illness and death.

The House’s chief clerk, David Reddecliff, said the group of legislative leaders that has administrative authority in the chamber met after getting word of Schemel’s positive test and canceled Thursday’s voting session.

Reddecliff said contact tracing began immediately, but it was too early to say if others needed to quarantine. The House’s next scheduled session is Oct. 19.

The House had been scheduled to take up a Republican-backed measure Thursday that would set up a GOP majority committee to investigate the election during its last month.

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