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Utah lawmaker hospitalized with COVID-19, while others report positive tests

Pleasant Grove legislator has been too ill to engage in the legislative session so far.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Capitol remains closed to the public as members of the House and Senate gather as the Utah State Legislature opens the 2021 legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

Two Utah lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday while a third, Utah Rep. Jon Hawkins, 42, was battling COVID-19 from a hospital bed.

Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, has been unable to participate in the legislative session so far, according to a Sunday post on his official Facebook page that requested Utahns of all political stripes “come together in prayer for Jon and his family.”

In a statement Monday evening, House Speaker Brad Wilson said he’s been in regular contact with Hawkins’ family for updates.

“Representative Hawkins is known for his jovial nature and we have certainly felt his absence during these opening days of the session,” the Kaysville Republican said, adding that Hawkins is a “well-respected and esteemed member of our body and we hope to have him back at the Capitol, representing his constituents as soon as he is back to health.”

Legislative leaders have been preparing for a COVID-19 outbreak and have instituted an array of public health measures to prevent one, such as requiring lawmakers to undergo twice-weekly rapid testing as a condition of attending meetings in person. Legislators are also supposed to wear masks on the chamber floor except when addressing their colleagues during an official proceeding.

But on the first day the public was allowed to attend legislative meetings in person, some visitors refused to comply with mask-wearing requirements. State Sen. Jake Anderegg had to pause a Monday morning committee meeting because several audience members refused to cover their faces. The meeting continued virtually after a several-minute break.

“Whether I agree with it or not, that is a health order that we must comply with,” the Lehi Republican said.

His committee co-chair, Rep. Paul Ray, noted that people with underlying health conditions often attend the social services appropriations meetings.

“That’s pretty much most of our typical audience in here,” Ray, R-Clearfield, said. “So we need to keep everybody safe.”

Senate President Stuart Adams told reporters Monday that he thought the situation was handled well, with members of the public still able to participate virtually and provide comment on legislation.

And he hopes this isn’t the first sign of more challenges with the public to come.

“I believe in Utah,” Adams said. “We, again, are trying to work together and trying to get the people’s work done. We’ll see what happens.”

While the trickle of positive COVID-19 cases on Capitol Hill since the session began last week could be seen as a point of concern, lawmakers have argued the test results are evidence their safety plan is working.

“Positive cases are being caught and the legislative branch is taking extra steps to protect lawmakers, staff, interns and the public,” the House and Senate said in a joint statement last week. “Lawmakers are safely working on behalf of Utahns to debate and consider important issues and fund vital programs, including education, health departments and social services.”

Legislative leaders indicated they would not be disclosing the number of positive COVID-19 tests or the names of individuals who had contracted the disease, citing privacy concerns.

However, Sen. Todd Weiler on Monday tweeted that he’d also tested positive.

“So I never got COVID-19 under President Trump,” the Woods Cross Republican wrote. “Less than a week into the Biden admin and BAM! here we are.”

Weiler, who tested negative last week, doesn’t think he contracted the coronavirus from any of his colleagues and suspects he caught it over the weekend while spending time with his daughter’s boyfriend. Concerned that he might have been exposed, Weiler sought a rapid test first thing Monday morning at the Capitol.

The state senator said he was careful to avoid contact with others and was in the building early in the morning, when barely anyone was there. In a phone interview Monday afternoon, he said he hasn’t experienced any symptoms yet.

But Weiler, who participated in legislative proceedings virtually on Monday, said he’s been concerned about Hawkins and helped several of his colleagues record a video to cheer up the hospitalized House representative.

“[Hawkins] is at least 10 years younger than me, maybe 15 or 20,” Weiler said. “So hopefully, it won’t kick my trash as bad as it’s kicked his.”

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, also received a positive test on Monday and returned home, Adams told reporters. No lawmakers have been forced to quarantine as a result of either positive, he added, noting that both Weiler and Ipson received their test results in the morning before coming into close contact with anyone on Capitol Hill.

Adams acknowledged last week that there was concern that a COVID outbreak could pose “some challenges.” But he noted that of the 29 senators, around 15 have either already had COVID-19 or been inoculated as part of the state’s vaccine rollout to teachers, health care workers and people over 70.

“We’re trying to be as careful as possible,” he told reporters on Friday.

But although the Legislature’s only constitutional requirement during the session is to pass a budget, he added that “we haven’t really anticipated that we were going to close or shut down after the base budget.”

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