Clinging to a white flag and a microphone, Katie Bug glared into a sea of state police. The officers were clad in tactical gear and stood behind a white chain, cordoning off a walkway to the Texas Capitol building. To get inside, Bug would need to swirl a swab high into her nostril to prove she’s coronavirus-free and, per the State Preservation Board, wear a mask.
She refused to do either.
“Tell the State Preservation Board where they can stick their mask,” yelled the thirty-year-old Austin activist, who said she plans to sue the board and the Texas Department of Public Safety for barring her from the Capitol.
Tuesday was a Texas Legislature opening day like no other. Dozens of state troopers guarded each entrance of the Capitol, prepared for a violent protest like the riot in Washington, D.C., on January 6. Instead, only about two dozen demonstrators showed up, and while several were armed, none threatened to storm the building. Those who wished to view the procedural festivities of the Lege’s first day—the swearing in of House and Senate members—passed through enclosed medical tents to take rapid coronavirus tests to earn entry to the building. And once inside the strangely quiet halls for what has historically been a bustling first day filled with hope and anticipation, legislators dutifully wore face masks, marched in their respective chambers for the oaths of office, and left without much excitement.
“Is there somebody that’s not frustrated with COVID? I mean, everybody’s frustrated with COVID,” said state representative James Frank, a Republican from Wichita Falls. “We’re all trying to figure it out.”
By Friday, one member had tested positive for COVID, sending members with assigned seats around him into quarantine and setting off alarm bells over whether lawmakers can conduct business safely over the next five months.
Representative Joe Deshotel told the Texas Tribune, which first reported the story, that he tested positive for COVID on Thursday after three days on the House floor. He said he took a rapid test when leaving the Capitol, but hadn’t taken any on his way into the building earlier in the week.
The public and the Senate members were required to take a rapid COVID test to enter the Capitol this first week, but the test was optional for House members.
The pandemic has not only masked enthusiasm for the legislative session, it has become its central theme. Jump-starting the economy and helping businesses hurt by the pandemic, getting students who fell behind when classes shifted online back on grade level, and ensuring Texans from all corners of the state have access to telehealth care are all high priorities from top leaders this year. Some lawmakers want to see other changes born from the pandemic, ranging from expanding Medicaid—said by leaders to be off the table—to legally enshrining margaritas to go.
Other representatives are seeking to curb the governor’s power to renew emergency declarations, which many conservative and some liberal members had opposed last year. Houston-area representative Briscoe Cain, a Republican, offered to represent for free anyone fined for not adhering to the governor’s mask mandates. Republican representative Matt Schaefer, vice chairman of the conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, had tweeted in June that he’d had enough of the governor stripping businesses of revenue through shutdown orders. “Pain. Frustration. Sadness. Confusion. Desperation. Anger,” he wrote. “Just a few emotions I am hearing from East Tx business owners suffering from shutdown orders. @GovAbbott is taking their livelihoods with no compensation. Add me to the angry list. ENOUGH!”
Even some Democrats in the Lege say the governor had too much unilateral power in extending the emergency declarations in 2020, including the party’s caucus leader, Representative Chris Turner, and attorneys Michelle Beckley and Gene Wu.
In a scathing June letter to the governor, San Antonio Democratic representative Trey Martinez Fischer wrote that Governor Greg Abbott “took a gamble on our state’s response strategy, and Texas lost.” “Emergency powers,” he continued, “are intended to be executed in coordination with lawmakers, not to our exclusion. If state law gives the Legislature the ultimate authority in emergency declarations, then we have the authority to shape the Governor’s response.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Woodlands republican Steve Toth echoed that idea. In September, he condemned Abbott’s refusal to further allow businesses to reopen, and he wants to end what he calls a “catch-22” that allows the governor to extend emergency declarations without the Legislature weighing in.
“Here’s the problem: if you don’t like the governor’s Covid-19 orders, I have to wait until January of the next odd-numbered year to stop them,” Toth said in a press statement last month, announcing a bill he introduced. “The governor isn’t going to call a special session for me to stop his orders before then.” Toth wants an automatic special session to be called for lawmakers to authorize the extension of any emergency order the governor makes past thirty days.
Other lawmakers are frustrated with having to wear a mask on the floor. An effort led by Republican representative Kyle Biedermann to allow Texans attending committee meetings to go without a mask failed to get any traction, and got hardly any debate. Against the protestations of 23 representatives, masks will still be required on the floor at all times except for when a lawmaker is speaking at the lectern. The same goes for onlookers watching the show from the gallery or committee rooms. However, coronavirus tests will no longer be required to enter the building, said GOP representative Todd Hunter on Thursday.
Lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to squeak in other non-pandemic-related rules, such as requiring that the House vote to abolish abortion before it names roads and bridges. Ninety-nine members voted against that measure.
As lawmakers neared the end of their three-hour discussion on the rules, Biedermann walked up to the front podium and pulled off his Texas flag mask.
“It seems to me that one of the best and most popular places this session is going to be back mic and front mic, because you can take this damn thing off,” said a frustrated Biedermann, waving his mask and tossing it on the podium.