SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative committee shut down briefly on Monday after a small group of anti-mask demonstrators showed up. It came on the same day two senators disclosed they had tested positive for COVID-19.
Lawmakers said they were in the middle of the Social Services Appropriations Committee on Monday morning when three people, unmasked, walked into the room.
"We're going to go ahead and pause. We've just received direction from House and Senate leadership that we need to take a break on our committee," Senate co-chair Jake Anderegg said. "We have members in the audience that are not complying with the health department rule for masks."
Committee leaders took a 10-minute recess and ordered the room cleared. Lawmakers on the committee were told to go to their offices and participate virtually.
When FOX 13 arrived in the committee room, about 20 minutes after the initial incident, only Sen. Anderegg, R-Lehi, and House co-chair Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, remained with a handful of interns and staffers.
"This is being done so that we can ensure that we will be able to continue keeping the Capitol open. That is a health order, whether I agree with it or not, that is a health order we must comply with," Sen. Anderegg said.
Rep. Ray was more blunt, pointing out the Social Services Appropriations Committee often sees some of the most medically fragile people testifying.
"This committee of all committees, we have a lot of of people with underlying health conditions who come in," he told the audience. "Those are the people we are concerned about."
In an interview with FOX 13, Rep. Ray described the three people as "anti-mask" demonstrators. Capitol Hill staffers said they sought to meet with lawmakers outside the House chamber, unmasked, then went to the Senate building and eventually left.
"They were asked by Highway Patrol to put their mask on, and they refused," Rep. Ray told FOX 13. "They were there specifically. They had handouts ready and their whole thing was we’re going to make a statement."
On Monday morning, the gallery above the House chamber was closed to the public by House leadership.
Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, praised the committee chairs for shutting it down. She was already participating in the committee hearing virtually, but agreed with Rep. Ray's decision to close the meeting.
Rep. Ray told FOX 13 he would do it again, if he had to.
"Most of us legislators hate, absolutely hate the mask mandate," he said. "But there’s rules to follow and we have to keep people safe."
Monday marks the first day the Utah State Capitol was opened to the public since it closed last March because of COVID-19. It was to open the first day of the legislative session, but that was delayed because of concerns of violent protests tied to the presidential inauguration and the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
In an effort to slow the spread of the deadly virus, House and Senate leadership have mandated rapid testing of lawmakers, staffers and interns. Masks are required throughout the building and physical distancing is enforced in committee hearings. Lawmakers are allowed to remove their masks when they speak in committees and during floor debates.
In the first week of the legislative session, Senate leadership confirmed three positive cases of COVID-19 had been identified. They were staffers and an intern. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, disclosed he tested positive on Monday after he had tested negative on Friday. Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, also tested positive and was quarantining, Senate President J. Stuart Adams said.
"We think the system is working. So we’re monitoring it very closely," he told reporters.
About 17 members of the Utah State Senate have already had COVID-19 or have been vaccinated, President Adams said.
Rep. Dailey-Provost said she would like to see her colleagues on Capitol Hill be more strict about health guidelines, pointing out some lawmakers are not wearing masks properly.
"I would really like to see my colleagues do a better job of keeping their masks on. I don’t think it’s hindrance to listen to people speak when they’re at the microphone with their masks on. In the interests of safety, the message is not being missed," she said.