When lawmakers convene at the Capitol Monday to resume the legislative session, there won’t be anyone in the third-floor public gallery – and several lawmakers will be absent, as well, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
At least one of those legislators, Rep. Amish Shah, won’t be returning to the Arizona House of Representatives at all this year. The Phoenix Democrat works as an emergency room physician, and he wrote in a Facebook post that he faced a decision between his patients and his constituents.
“Tomorrow and each week, I will be working in the Emergency Department as scheduled. This is a job I have done for over 15 years and I am very proud to serve patients,” he wrote March 13. “Some have asked whether I would cancel my shift, and my answer is a resounding ‘No.’ I simply can’t allow some other doctor to become exposed to this virus while I am relatively young and healthy and therefore at lower risk.
“But given my work in the ER and the risk to the other elected officials, I will no longer be able to attend the Arizona House of Representatives in person in 2020. I have informed Democratic and Republican leadership of my decision. I hope to be able to resume as soon as possible. I will continue to fully participate by telephone or conferencing as much as I can,” he wrote.
Other lawmakers are also saying they plan to stay away from the Capitol. The Yellow Sheet Report, a high-priced insider newsletter, reported March 13 that Sens. Paul Boyer and Heather Carter, both Republicans, will be staying away during the coronavirus pandemic. Carter is a primary caregiver for an elderly family member, while Boyer has an infant at home, the publication reported.
While other state legislatures have suspended their sessions amid the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, Arizona lawmakers are still – for now – doing their jobs. The buildings remain open to the public, though access has been restricted.
Gov. Doug Ducey on March 11 declared a state of emergency. On March 12, the Legislature approved $55 million in emergency funding and limited public access to the State Capitol and legislative chambers.
On March 15, Ducey announced that all Arizona schools are closed until March 27, and he said the state is adopting guidelines from federal health officials that events larger than 50 people should be cancelled.
Minority leader Fernandez: a ‘very, very critical time’
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said he supports Shah’s decision to forgo in-person legislating.
“I know he would like to be there working with us to make sure that we pass the best budget that we can for Arizona, but he is also an emergency room doctor and he believes in facts and science, and he knows how deadly this virus is and how easily we can transmit it from person-to-person,” she said.
Fernandez said state lawmakers should more seriously consider swiftly approving funding for state agencies to respond to the public health emergency and then suspending their session.
“The reality is we should be working on legislation that would make it easier for people to get tested. There’s not enough tests in the state,” Fernandez said. “Whenever that federal package appropriates to the states, we should make sure that every one of our agencies are ready to go on this crisis. And then we need to take a hiatus. The legislature needs to leave for a couple of weeks, reassess, and come back to work or just pass the budget very quickly.
“This is a very, very critical time.”
She added that, besides making sure appropriations are in place for the state agencies that will be responding to the health crisis, lawmakers should consider whether they need to pass laws to protect people from evictions and having their utilities shut off.
Shah: Coronavirus a ‘once-in-a-lifetime threat’
In his Facebook post, Shah also shared his views as a medical professional on COVID-19.
“If the experiences of other places such as China, Italy and Seattle are any guide, we are about to face a deadly, once-in-a-lifetime threat,” he said. “2020 will be a very difficult year for all humankind. All of our lives will be changed and disrupted. This will continue to cause massive social and economic disruption for many months.”
Shah also echoed the recommendations that have been made on social distancing, which can help slow the transmission of the virus, he said.
“Work from home, cancel meetings if you can, and use teleconferencing. These measures among others will slow viral transmission. Meanwhile, you should: Wash your hands; Wipe and disinfect if you are coughing or sneezing; Cough and sneeze into your elbow, not your hands; Elbow bump or wave instead of shaking hands, fist bumping, or hugging.
“Let’s fight this virus and win,” he wrote.