Amid a massive holiday season surge of COVID-19 that this week pushed daily virus deaths past the total fatalities of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, legislators tasked with keeping their states afloat were increasingly falling ill from the pandemic.
Lawmakers and staffers were sickened—and one even died—in state capitols this week in North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Indiana. In some cases, they may have felt compelled to continue working as a public health crisis ravaged their region.
In others, it was hard not to wonder what they were thinking.
North Dakota State Sen. Ray Holmberg said he was feeling “very tired” on Thursday after contracting COVID-19 during a legislative pre-session last week. The 76-year-old Republican had not yet developed a fever, he said.
Jarringly, Holmberg told The Daily Beast that he felt severely fatigued over the weekend, was tested for the virus on Monday, and received his results on Tuesday—hours after he attended a lunch meeting with other North Dakota state legislators and the president of the University of North Dakota.
“In hindsight, should I have gone? Probably not,” Holmberg told The Daily Beast. “But it happened, and I’m not gonna deny the obvious. When I received my diagnosis later, I did notify the president’s office.”
Three other employees of the legislature’s research agency also tested positive this week and, like Holmberg, are recovering at home. Holmberg was scheduled to receive a plasma infusion on Thursday afternoon, he told The Bismarck Tribune.
David Dodds, a spokesperson for the university, confirmed to The Daily Beast that University of North Dakota President Andrew Armacost attended a lunch meeting “at which many other North Dakota State legislators were in attendance, including State Sen. Ray Holmberg.”
Holmberg maintained that the event consisted of “eight people in a large room” where everyone maintained social distance. The lawmaker added that while there was no handshaking and masks were used, he did sit “kitty corner” from Armacost—and that they took off their face coverings when eating.
Dodds added, “President Armacost, who had previously recovered from his own bout with COVID-19, did choose to sit at the opposite end of a table that was occupied by Sen. Holmberg.” Dobbs did not comment when asked whether university president was following CDC guidelines to self-isolate after the apparent COVID-19 exposure.
The state’s 2021 legislative session convenes next month for up to 80 days, and North Dakota State Rep. Karla Rose Hanson told The Daily Beast she was worried about the health of her colleagues, “especially those with underlying conditions.”
To date, 1,103 people have died and 86,707 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in North Dakota, according to the state’s health department. Health experts, however, are concerned about the trajectory of the state of 762,062 residents, especially as the Peace Garden state has a test positivity rate of almost 24 percent. (Most experts say that 5 percent is too high.)
“The news of several positive cases resulting from last week’s meeting should bring home the importance of consistently wearing masks and staying home when sick,” Hanson added.
State Rep. Corey Mock, a Democrat who attended Tuesday’s luncheon remotely, said he was “not particularly” surprised to hear of infections stemming from the legislative session.
“It seemed probable someone would be exposed to the virus with a relatively large amount of people from across the state convening in [a] shared workspace,” he told The Daily Beast, saying he wishes Holmberg a quick recovery. “Many members chose not to wear any face coverings the first day; others loosely or selectively followed the rules the remainder of the week.”
Mock noted that in addition to Holmberg and the UND president, other lawmakers who attended the luncheon included Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, City Administrator Todd Feland, Chamber CEO Barry Wilfahrt, and Representative Mary Adams.
The four others did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
Even as he acknowledged his own pandemic missteps on Thursday, Holmberg told The Daily Beast, “There are still some who dismiss this as the scourge it can be.”
Indeed, that dismissiveness was evident from the number of lawmakers apparently planning holiday parties and in-person fundraisers during the holiday season, as well other social events.
A large gathering in Arizona that featured Rudy Giuliani sent a slew of local lawmakers into quarantine after Trump’s personal lawyer tested positive for COVID-19. The event, where a dozen current and former Arizona Republican lawmakers heard testimony from residents dubiously claiming election fraud, was largely maskless and flouted social distancing guidelines.
A dinner at the mansion of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who famously threw a concert in October, saw at least one attendee—58-year-old State Sen. Helene Duhamel—test positive for the virus this week.
In Indiana, House Speaker Todd Huston tested positive for the virus on Wednesday and was quarantining at home with mild symptoms, reported The Indianapolis Star. The Republican had not been at the statehouse within the past seven days and had not been in recent contact with legislative members or staff, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
“The pandemic has impacted Hoosiers and their families across our state, especially in the recent surge of cases,” Huston said in a statement. “I will continue quarantining at home and taking all necessary precautions. I look forward to returning to work when it’s safe to do so.”
Huston’s spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions from The Daily Beast about how Huston contracted the virus.
In New Hampshire, Rep. Dick Hinch—who was sworn in as House Speaker just last week—died on Wednesday. The state’s attorney general, Gordan MacDonald, announced the results of Hinch’s autopsy, which noted COVID-19 as the cause of death. The 71-year-old U.S. Navy veteran was starting his seventh term in office, according to local reports.
The legislature’s swearing in ceremony caused a stir last week, with many Democrats refusing to attend over what they viewed as lackluster COVID-19 safety precautions for the 400-member House and 24-member Senate. The ceremony was held outdoors and distanced, but several Republican lawmakers contracted the virus during an indoor Republican caucus meeting on Nov. 20, at which many attendees were without masks, reported Boston.com.
The state’s Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley offered his condolences, as did House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, who said in a statement to The Daily Beast that “it was an honor to serve with” Hinch.
State Senate President Chuck Morse, a fellow Republican, said on Thursday that Hinch was one of his “very best friends” and that he was heartbroken by the news of his passing.
“Dick was truly a kind and humble man,” said Morse. “We were so looking forward to serving together because we had so many plans.”
With the pandemic surging ferociously across the country, it was inevitable that outbreaks, which have plagued governors and White House insiders—not to mention the president of the United States—would reach lower-profile lawmakers. Still, the slew of cases in the wake of Thanksgiving, which experts anticipated would fuel the coronavirus fire, seemed to be at a particularly sharp tipping point in the heartland.
As for North Dakota’s Rep. Corey Mock, he believes “this is our wake-up call.”
He added, “I just hope people are listening.”