Legislative leaders on Tuesday afternoon suspended budget hearings of state agencies for the rest of this week after three lawmakers tested positive for covid-19.
Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Reps. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, and Stu Smith, R-Batesville, said they have each tested positive for the virus that causes covid-19 and that they don't know how they were infected.
The Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee are holding budget hearings for state agencies in advance of the regular legislative session that starts Jan. 11. The budget hearings started Oct. 13 and are scheduled to last until Nov. 12. In its regular session, the Legislature and the governor will consider enacting a general revenue budget for fiscal 2022, which starts July 1.
The budget hearings take place in a large meeting room with lawmakers separated by plastic-glass barriers and sitting farther apart than they normally would.
Senate President Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, told lawmakers Tuesday afternoon that Rice is feeling better.
"Nevertheless, I would ask you to keep him and the House members that are infected in your prayers as they recover from this," he said.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said later, "Rep. Gray and Rep. Smith informed me they are doing well.
"I wish them all a speedy recovery," Shepherd said in a news release. "Leadership and staff are consulting with the Arkansas Department of Health in regards to contact tracing."
Rice is the second state senator to acknowledge that he tested positive. Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, in July became the first on the Senate side to announce a positive test; he later recovered.
Rice said he learned Monday night that he had tested positive Sunday morning at a University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences drive-thru testing site in Little Rock. He had started having "a little bit of a fever" Saturday morning.
He said his temperature was checked for five days last week at the Multi-Agency Complex, where he attended legislative meetings.
"I hadn't had a fever since Sunday about 5 p.m.," Rice said in an interview. "I never did feel bad. ... I know for some people [covid-19] can be life-threatening. ... Mine has been a mild case."
He said he expects to be in isolation until about Oct. 28.
Smith and Gray are the fourth and fifth representatives to say that they tested positive for the coronavirus.
Reps. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff; Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna; and Les Warren, R-Hot Springs, announced they had tested positive before the fiscal legislative session started April 8. They have recovered.
Smith said he tested positive Sunday, after developing a sore throat and cough and having tasting and hearing problems on Saturday afternoon. He said he had been to legislative meetings Tuesday and Thursday last week.
"I feel really good, to tell you the truth," he said. "I never had any fever."
Smith said he hopes to get out of quarantine on Oct. 26 or Oct. 27.
"Tell everybody to practice social distancing and wear a mask because that is the only prevention to it right now," he said.
Gray said she tested positive Tuesday morning in Batesville, and she attended legislative meetings three days last week in Little Rock.
She said she almost feels like she has a severe allergy with body aches, a headache, a tight chest and pressure on her ear, but no fever. She said she expects to be quarantined for 10 days.
"I just hate some of us came down with it and they had to cancel budget hearings," Gray said. "I hope it isn't indicative of what the session will be like."
Meanwhile, Hendren told lawmakers that the infections of the three legislators "causes a great deal of concern for us and our operations here and how we move forward, who needs to be quarantined, who needs to be tested, and we are working through all those issues."
"We are hopeful that it is limited and contained to two House members and the one [senator] that has tested positive," he said.
But until lawmakers know that, Hendren said, "we are going to ask that meetings be suspended the rest of this week and for the Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee to adopt a rule change that would allow members to remotely participate in the budget hearings if they can't attend the meetings because of covid-19, quarantining or isolation.
"The expectation is we'll be able to come back next week and pick up our business, perhaps with a slightly modified schedule, and also allowing those that must be quarantined, find everybody that needs to be isolated or quarantined, if they want to participate, the ability to participate," Hendren said.
He said he and Shepherd believe it's important to understand that suspending legislative meetings for the rest of this week doesn't mean that "if we have future positive tests we are going to suspend and cancel operations," either during budget hearings or the session.
"We have to have work to do," Hendren said. "We will get it done. We will have a session. We will complete our budget hearings, but we'll also try to do it in as safe a manner as possible, and until we find out exactly the scope of this infection amongst our members, we are going to give ourselves a few days to do that."
Shepherd said in a news release, "I am confident, even with this short break, that we can still accomplish the work required in advance of the 2021 regular session."
The Legislative Council co-chairman, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, and Hendren said lawmakers have been informed of their colleagues' infections.
Hendren said legislative leaders will seek the Health Department's "advice and counsel on who and how many tests we do and who and how many of us need to be quarantined."
Afterward, Health Department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said that "the Department is following our guidelines and processes by encouraging testing for anyone who was exposed and providing recommendations regarding quarantine and isolation as needed."
"The Department did not make a recommendation to suspend budget hearings this week," she said in a written statement responding to this newspaper's questions.
Before canceling hearings Tuesday afternoon, the Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee approved a rule change to allow members of the council or committee, who are either unwilling or unable to physically attend a meeting of a panel on which they serve, to be allowed to participate remotely through Zoom videoconferencing software under one of four reasons:
• He or she is considered to be at high risk for severe illness related to covid-19.
• He or she is a caregiver for someone who is at high risk for severe illness related to covid-19.
• He or she has been directed by the Health Department to undergo quarantine or isolation because of close contact with a positive-testing individual.
• He or she has tested positive for covid-19.
Lawmakers wishing to participate remotely will be required to make the request by 4 p.m. on the day before the meeting. The lawmakers attending meetings remotely won't be eligible for per idem and mileage under this rule.