Michigan House cancels session after staffer's positive COVID test

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The Michigan House on Tuesday canceled legislative session for the rest of the week after a staffer who might have had contact with multiple lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus. 

House Speaker Lee Chatfield said the staffer had nothing to do with the Oversight Committee hearing last week addressed by a mask-less Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's personal attorney who is now hospitalized with COVID-19. 

Exterior photo of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Chatfield said the staff member's positive result is unrelated to the hearing and that the individual "may not have even been a close contact of many representatives given the timeline."

"However, some representatives who have been working closely with that person are now choosing to test and isolate pending results. Because of that, we will no longer be holding session or committee on Wednesday or Thursday," said Chatfield, R-Levering. 

He added that those who were in contact with the staffer have already been notified and are currently isolating and getting tested.

"We are asking everyone to stay home, stay healthy and get tested while the Business Office conducts their usual contact tracing," Chatfield added. 

After the cancellation was announced, House Minority Leader-elect Donna Lasinski criticized the GOP leadership for subjecting people working in the Capitol to "unsafe" conditions.

"We shouldn't be at this point and we cannot keep cancelling session because of GOP leadership's failure to take #COVID19 seriously," the Scio Township Democrat tweeted. 

"COVID-19 is the enemy, not each other, but right now Republican lawmakers are failing to see that. Let's come together and take action to fight this virus — and make sure we take common sense steps to stop this virus from ripping through the Legislature two weeks before Christmas."

The Ingham County Health Department said Monday it was "extremely likely" that Giuliani was contagious during his testimony at last week's hearing and issued a mandatory quarantine order for anyone who did not wear a mask during the proceedings, or who was within six feet of Giuliani for 15 minutes or more.

The House will be following guidance from experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well adhering to "the strong safety protocols that we have had in place all year," Chatfield said in a separate statement Tuesday. 

"No health director has the authority to shut down state government," Chatfield said.

Potential exposure

Republican state Rep. Matt Hall, who chairs the House Oversight panel that hosted Giuliani, told The Detroit News on Tuesday he has tested negative for COVID-19.

The session cancellation came amid news that Trump legal adviser Jenna Ellis also reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus after participating in the same Lansing hearing with Giuliani, also without a mask.

Axios first reported Tuesday that Ellis was telling associates of her positive test after she spent much of last week with Giuliani, who was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital on Sunday with the virus. Giuliani confirmed Ellis' positive result later Tuesday in an interview with WABC radio in New York City.

Ellis, a senior legal adviser to Trump's campaign, sat next to Giuliani at Wednesday's four-hour hearing in Lansing before the Michigan House Oversight Committee about the presidential election. 

Rudy Giuliani testifies at Michigan legislative hearing on alleged election fraud in Lansing on December 2.

She also was with Giuliani during an 11-hour hearing last week before GOP state lawmakers in Arizona, where leaders also canceled legislative session for the week due to the exposure risk. 

Ellis and Giuliani, in conjunction with Trump's campaign, are engaged in an effort to undermine trust in the results of the Nov. 3 election in multiple states in an attempt to delay or overturn President-elect Joe Biden's victory. Biden won Michigan by 154,000 votes. 

In response to Ellis' positive test, the House will take its "usual precautions," Chatfield spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said.

“In this instance, that includes some members choosing to test and isolate out of an abundance of caution,” D’Assandro said.

Neither the Trump campaign nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have contacted the House regarding Ellis or Giuliani's test results, he said. 

"No one has contacted the House about contact tracing with relation to the (Trump) legal team, and based on the timeline that was made public, that is not expected," D'Assandro said. 

Chatfield has said Giuliani was "COVID-negative" while in Michigan, and that the only people within six feet of him for an extended period in the hearing room were his own legal team and witnesses.

The Michigan Republican Party, however, said Sunday that its officers and staff who came into contact with Giuliani during his visit to GOP headquarters would get tested "and all appropriate precautions are being taken," party spokesman Tony Zammit said.

Giuliani sat next to Laura Cox, chairwoman of the state GOP, for a legal briefing prior to Wednesday's hearing. Neither Giuliani nor Cox wore masks. Ellis did not meet with Cox prior to the hearing, Zammit said. 

Like most of the rest of the country, Michigan has seen a surge in COVID cases over the last month, with the state reporting 45,015 new infections last week.

State, locals eye enforcement

State workplace safety regulators confirmed Tuesday that they are investigating the Michigan House of Representatives after an employee made a complaint, Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Camara Lewis said Tuesday. 

Because the investigation is open, Lewis said she was unable to say when the complaint was made or who made it. 

In October, House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, threatened to file a complaint with state regulators if GOP leaders failed to change the chamber’s mask and gun policies. 

Chatfield accused Greig of a publicity stunt at the time. "We all know MIOSHA can't trump the Constitution, and we all know this is a partisan press stunt," D'Assandro said in October.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail denied threatening to "shut down state government," but noted officials were "at sea" when it comes to working with the state Legislature. 

Vail said she sent the names of some lawmakers believed to be exposed to Giuliani to their respective health officers, but she argued the Legislature has a duty to its employees to create a safe work environment. 

In a Monday email to county officials and Attorney General Dana Nessel's office, Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon said she wasn't sure "what legally CAN be done. 

"Is there a separation of powers issue? Do the legislators have immunity from prosecution for actions during their course of duties?" she asked.

"Certainly, jail makes no sense," Siemon wrote, noting the Ingham County Jail had had "numerous cases."

Nessel's office responded that it couldn't provide guidance to local officials on the matter, Nessel's spokeswoman Kelly Rossman McKinney said. Additionally, the attorney general does not have jurisdiction over the Legislature, she said. 

Staff writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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