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Two Idaho lawmakers report positive COVID-19 test on Day 3 of legislative session

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking and Rep. John Gannon learned their tests were positive Wednesday and quickly left the statehouse, according to a spokesperson.

BOISE, Idaho — Two Idaho Democrats disclosed they have tested positive for COVID-19, less than 72 hours after the Idaho legislature opened a new session.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, (D) Boise, and Rep. John Gannon, (D) Boise, learned about their positive test Wednesday and quickly left the statehouse, according to Olivia Heersink, the communication director for the Idaho House and Senate Democrats. 

Heersink added both lawmakers wore masks at the Capitol each day of the session. Those who were in close contact with the infected individuals have been notified and will get tested.

There have been no confirmed reports of Republican lawmakers who have tested positive at the statehouse.

"It concerns me obviously from the standpoint we are in another surge," Senate President Pro Tempore, Republican Chuck Winder of Boise said.

"We're in another peak outbreak," House Minority Leader, Democrat Ilana Rubel of Boise said. "There are more than 2,000 Americans dying a day right now of COVID-19. It's a pretty frightening situation." 

Rep. Rubel believes there may be a "much higher number" of coronavirus cases within the House, Senate and legislature staff, many have just not been utilizing the available daily testing at Boise State University or disclosing their positive test.

"My first thought is that probably this is severely undercounting," Rubel said. "[Rep. Gannon and Sen. Ward-Engelking] are the legislators that actually going out of their way to get tested and then went to disclose that they had it."

At the Idaho legislature, there are no requirements for lawmakers to take a COVID-19 test or report symptoms or positive tests.

"Most people, that I'm aware of, around the body have been vaccinated and boosted," Winder said. "We will have to see how it all works out but right now we're planning to do business as usual."

While there is also no mask mandate while at the Idaho State Capitol, Winder told KTVB he has seen more mask-wearing compared to this year than last.

However, even with a surge in coronavirus cases around the Gem State and two lawmakers already quarantining because of positive tests, Winder said there are no additional safety guidance or requirements he would like to see move forward at the Statehouse.

"I think we've taken the stance that we encourage people to wear a mask, but we don't have a mask mandate," Winder said. "It's a difference of opinion whether that's beneficial or not. We allow people to make their own choice." 

Winder added he encourages those who are uncomfortable or maybe more at risk to wear a mask while at the legislature.

Whereas, Rubel said she would like to see more distancing when it comes to seating at committees, something similar to what lawmakers saw in the last session. However, her top priority would be to get the capabilities for the public to be able to testify remotely.

"I was extremely disturbed to learn Wednesday morning they are not planning to allow remote testimony for the public in committees this session," Rubel said. "As public servants, I think it is imperative the public the ability to testify safely to their government and I think it's completely unacceptable right now that legislative leaders running the building are denying the public that opportunity." 

Rubel added she would also like to see remote capabilities for legislators to be able to participate while away from the capitol building, quarantining or for safety.

Former House Democrat Muffy Davis was denied the request to be remote in January 2021, even with her increased risk of complications from the coronavirus.

When asked if it was possible for lawmakers to participate remotely, Winder said no. He stated the reason is because the constitution requires a legislator to participate and vote while present in the building. However, he added there are provisions made for substitutes to be in for a lawmaker if they had to be away for more than three days. 

In March 2021, multiple lawmakers and staff members tested positive for coronavirus, which forced the legislature to recess for two weeks. 

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