By Hiding Positive Coronavirus Test, Pa. Republicans Proved They Consider Democrats Illegitimate

Setting aside the obvious medical malfeasance, there is a deeper illness inside the Republican caucus.

pa house coronavirus

Republicans in the Pa. House declined to tell Democrats that a member of their caucus tested positive for coronavirus. Photo by billnoll/Getty Images.

The Pennsylvania legislature does not have a reputation as one of the world’s great deliberative bodies. But even if we lower the bar from “great” to “decidedly mediocre,” the legislature in Harrisburg has still stood out among its lackluster peers, in recent years, for the wrong reasons. For starters, there was the 2018 incident in which State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe called his colleague, Brian Sims, of Center City, a “lying homosexual” and faced no consequences. More recently, there was the episode in which Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman loudly berated Democratic State Senator Katie Muth as she read from a letter written by a homeless person. Still, Harrisburg stooped to what might be a new low altogether on Wednesday, when it was reported that a member of the Republican caucus in the state House tested positive for COVID-19 and that certain members of the G.O.P. leadership kept the news of the positive test from their Democratic colleagues for more than a week.

It’s important to nail down the precise chronology here. According to reporting in the Pennsylvania Capital Star, Rep. Andrew Lewis was first tested for the virus on May 18th, and received a positive result two days later. Since he’d been sick with flu-like symptoms prior to the test, Lewis hadn’t been at the Capitol in person since May 14th.

Once Lewis tested positive, he informed the House humans relations department, which then apparently undertook some sort of contact tracing effort that identified at least two other close contacts, Republican representatives Russ Diamond and Frank Ryan. That was on May 21st. The two lawmakers say they both began a period of self-quarantine, which is just ending now — right as Democrats found out that there had been a positive test result in the chamber.

What has made Democrats furious is the fact that Rep. Lewis could have been spreading the virus, even before he left the Capitol on May 14th. The incubation period for the virus can be as high as 14 days, and, according to the World Health Organization, it can be spread before the onset of symptoms. The state House was in session for six of the first 14 days of May, which means Rep. Lewis could, in theory, have been unknowingly contagious for days. Democrats say they don’t know how many people have been deemed “close contacts” of Rep. Lewis, but they do know that not a single Democrat had been informed of the possibility of infection. In a CNN appearance on Thursday afternoon, Rep. Sims cast doubt on the House Republican contact tracing effort. “The idea that simply quarantining two or three of [Lewis’s] own colleagues whom he interacted with is the same as contact tracing is laughable, if it wasn’t so deadly,” he said.

Some Democrats, including Sims and Rep. Kevin Boyle, of Philly and Montco, have gone so far as to call on House Speaker Mike Turzai to resign. Turzai said on Thursday that he was unaware of any positive COVID-19 test, though Sims doesn’t appear to believe him. The Republican leadership, meanwhile, has maintained it followed all of the relevant C.D.C. and state protocols in its contact tracing procedures. Those protocols only state that contact tracing needs to be performed up to 48 hours before the onset of symptoms. Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, says that Lewis was “only in the Capitol for a short period of time” during the 48-hour pre-symptom window. In an email, he added, “We implemented the guidelines from the C.D.C. and Pa. Dept. of Health, in line with exactly what Gov. Wolf requires from any business that wishes to operate currently. Anyone who met those guidelines was notified and quarantined.”

There is still a considerable amount of information that we don’t know, including how many people have been tested, how many have tested positive, and how many staffers have been asked to quarantine. But set all that aside for just a moment. The lack of disclosure from Republicans to Democrats suggests something else that is sinister in its own right: that the Republican caucus fundamentally does not view its Democratic counterpart as a legitimate entity, and has therefore concluded that it is not deserving of full information.

This notion of fundamental Democratic illegitimacy has been crescendoing for a while now. You can hear echoes of it everywhere: from Republican gerrymandering, to Mitch McConnell holding up the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, to Republican legislatures stripping incoming Democratic elected officials of their power on the eve of their taking office. The central idea, so the thinking goes, is that because Democratic leadership would fundamentally threaten what they perceive as the American project, preventing them from coming to power — or at the very least curtailing that power considerably, if undemocratic gerrymandering somehow fails — is not only necessary, but justifiable. It’s a sort of alchemy, turning cheating into righteousness. Of course what you get in the end is something rotten.

You can hear the same tacit reasoning in President Trump’s recent tweets alleging — without a single shred of evidence — that vote-by-mail is racked with fraud. This ignores the fact that five states already have elections that are conducted largely through the mail, or that Trump himself has voted by mail multiple times, or that the Trump campaign itself is encouraging Republican voters to apply for mail-in ballots here in Pennsylvania. (The G.O.P. argues that its problem is with universal mail-in ballots, but that’s nonsense because no one previously ever heard a peep from Republicans about the states, including deep-red Utah, that already conduct their elections mostly by mail.)

The Pennsylvania Capitol at least appeared to be slightly inured to the President Trump-inspired rot that was seeping up through the ground. Last year, the Republican legislature passed Act 77, which modernized the state electoral code and considerably expanded the pool of eligible voters who could cast a mail-in ballot. But there are signs that G.O.P. officials across the state are starting to change their tune, perhaps not coincidentally, right after the president began his recent fear-mongering over mail-in ballots. When Rep. Boyle proposed a bill that would mail all Pennsylvania voters an application for a mail-in ballot for the 2020 primary, on account of the coronavirus pandemic that has now killed 100,000 Americans, he got nowhere.

But back to the issue at hand. House Republicans have already come up with a number of disingenuous justifications for why they failed to notify Democrats of the positive test result. The current line is that it was impossible to publicize it due to medical privacy laws. This is specious at best. More than 30 U.S. lawmakers (Democrats and Republicans alike, mind you) have announced positive COVID-19 test results. Pennsylvania Republicans could have followed suit, or they could have just announced the positive result anonymously. Even if we buy the Republican explanation about privacy, it hardly forgives them for not at least privately notifying the Democratic leadership. Maybe the entire caucus didn’t need to know — and, in fact, some rank-and-file Republicans apparently weren’t aware of the positive test — but that hardly forgives the total obfuscation.

Throughout this entire ordeal, Republicans have also assured the public that they followed all relevant C.D.C. guidelines. But this isn’t true, either. Many Republicans have made a point to walk around Capitol grounds without a face mask — in direct contravention of C.D.C. recommendations.

Eventually, the Republicans will also likely pull out their favorite deflection trick and suggest that they hid the news of the coronavirus test out of fear that Democrats would “politicize” it.

If anything, the opposite is true. One of the Republicans’ singular talents is a recognition of the power of messaging, and they clearly seem to understand that the news of a positive coronavirus test in the state House, right at the moment that those same House Republicans are encouraging the entire state to reopen its economy and return to business as usual, creates a contradiction that even a hefty dose of Fox News doublespeak might not be able to allay. In this case, to say nothing is to politicize.

The symptom on display here is the same one that explains the Katie Muth shouting incident of a few months back: Democrats are viewed as unequal partners in governance. This delegitimizing of the opposition — accomplished under the pretext of following the rules, even though those rules are often illegal or unevenly applied — is the only way to justify the vitriolic enmity displayed toward Sen. Muth, or partisan gerrymandering, or not sharing critical health information with one’s colleagues. But then, state House leaders are ultimately just following the lead from the top down. Yesterday, as this entire story was unfolding, the president of the United States retweeted a video. It began, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”