The statehouse in Mississippi has been closed as a surge in novel coronavirus cases now includes at least 26 lawmakers — both representatives and senators — and 10 Capitol employees.
“That number will certainly grow,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state’s health officer, said at a news conference on Wednesday, when at least five of the state’s largest hospitals reported having zero available ICU beds, forcing patients to be sent out of state.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Philip Gunn are among those infected. Both are self-quarantining at home. In videos that captured recent sessions, several lawmakers were seen not wearing face coverings.
The Legislature, which last was in session on July 1, voted in late June to pass a bill removing the Confederate flag emblem from the Mississippi state flag.
But the Legislature still hasn’t passed a budget for the next fiscal year, according to Gov. Tate Reeves, who added that lawmakers won’t meet for at least 14 days to help prevent the virus from spreading further.
“There is and was a significant risk to a large number of people gathering in the state Capitol,” Reeves said during a news conference.
A Mississippi Health Department spokeswoman said the agency still is conducting tests and outreach for anyone who was in contact with state leaders. Health officials are urging all staff members to get tested, self-quarantine for two weeks and monitor their symptoms.
Reeves said he’s concerned about delaying the budget, particularly when it comes to funding for agencies like the Department of Marine Resources, which monitors safety patrols, but that he’s worked out an emergency plan to keep the department funded.
“We are in the middle of a public health crisis, and we have to make decisions on risk and reward,” Reeves said. “In my opinion, it is too high of a risk for legislators to come back at least for the next 14 days.”
Mississippi’s Health Department said that as of Thursday afternoon, the state had 33,591 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,204 deaths, with 703 cases and 16 deaths reported on Wednesday. Jackson, Mississippi, the capital, had reported 727 confirmed cases and 17 related deaths.
The state has seen a gradual increase in new daily cases since June, when all businesses were allowed to reopen, health department data shows.
Reeves said he’s considering stricter measures to control the outbreak, including a statewide mask mandate. Reeves blamed residents and businesses for ignoring his calls to wear a mask on their own and avoid crowds.
“We believe very strongly if you wear a mask you can save yourself and your neighbors,” he said. “Wearing a mask can slow the spread of this virus.”