Doctors’ group says GOP lawmaker contracting COVID-19 is a wake-up call to wear masks in the Capitol

Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) at "Operation Haircut," another right-wing protest at the Capitol, May 20, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

State Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), one of most vocal Republicans to rally against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders to contain COVID-19, became on Sunday Michigan’s first GOP lawmaker to test positive for the disease.

“Of course we must take appropriate precautions to stay safe,” said Barrett on April 9 after Whitmer extended her stay-home order when the death toll hit 1,000 in Michigan. “… Yet we must also realize that most of our basic and fundamental rights have been suspended and our ability to earn a living has been affected. We will never eliminate all risk, and we have to allow the people of this state to begin to make their own decisions about the risks presented by this virus.”

The virus has now killed more than 6,200 and sickened more than 85,000 in Michigan since March. 

Barrett is likely the fifth member of the state Legislature to contract COVID-19. State Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) died in March after experiencing symptoms, state Reps. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) and Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) tested positive, and state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) experienced symptoms of the virus, but her test was lost.

Session canceled after lawmaker contracts COVID-19

After Barrett announced he had tested positive on Sunday, GOP leaders who run the Legislature canceled session this week, along with all committee meetings. This was the first time that the Legislature did so after a member became ill from coronavirus.

Republican lawmakers have been opposed to Whitmer’s emergency orders aimed at stopping the pandemic. They have convened a special bipartisan committee on her COVID-19 response, taken her to court over her orders and several have thrown support behind efforts to impeach her or remove her powers.

In recent weeks, Whitmer’s mandate for masks has become a flashpoint, with several GOP lawmakers and staff refusing to wear them in the Capitol and legislative buildings, worrying many of their colleagues, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle.

A number of Republicans have said mask requirements are “authoritarian,” including state Rep. Jim Lower (R-Greenville). State Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) compared the order to East Germany, the former Soviet Union satellite state, and the Berlin Wall in a series of Facebook posts. And House Republicans pushed the false claim on Facebook that Whitmer encouraged violence against those refusing to wear masks.

Hope introduced a resolution for a mask requirement in the House during the COVID-19 crisis, but it has not been taken up.

Republican compares Whitmer mask order to Soviet-era East Germany

Some health officials believe that a member of the Republican caucus contracting the disease should be a wakeup call to legislative leadership that precautions should be taken more seriously.

“After many refused to wear masks inside the Capitol and publicly promoted dangerous misinformation about mask usage, I hope this unfortunate development will force members of the Republican caucuses to finally take the miserable effects of this pandemic seriously,” said Dr. Farhan Bhatti, Michigan state lead for the Committee to Protect Medicare.

“As a physician, I know it’s better to take precautions late than never, so I urge Senate and House Republicans to take action to protect themselves, each other, and the public,” Bhatti added.

Amber McCann, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), told the Advance that the Senate already follows certain COVID-19 precautions. She did not say whether stricter measures are being considered for the chamber.

“The Senate already follows recommendations for workplaces, including social distancing, wearing masks, and remote work options,” McCann said. “The Senate executed its internal protocol to notify all senators and staff of the positive test. Session and committee hearings have been cancelled for the week to allow execution of protocols and time for individuals to quarantine, be tested, and receive those results.”

According to live streamed Senate videos of committee meetings, Barrett appears to have worn a face mask over at least the last several weeks. Video of one June 24 meeting in which he chaired the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee does not show him with a mask, but the video cuts off before showing whether he had one on before gaveling the meeting into order or after adjourning.

Michigan GOP senator tests positive for COVID-19

Senate Minority Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said that Barrett’s positive test is “an important reminder to everyone that we must continue to be diligent about wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing, because those carrying COVID-19 may be asymptomatic or nearly asymptomatic.”

“I am encouraging members and staff to seek testing if they have any concerns about potential exposure,” Ananich continued. “Thanks to the hard work of Gov. Whitmer and local health officials, testing is available and should be utilized.”

Barrett also has introduced legislation in recent years that would loosen vaccine requirements, including those that mandate children to receive certain vaccinations before attending school. About 20% to 40% of Americans express doubts about vaccine safety, commonly referred to as “anti-vaxxers.” 

To eradicate the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, some studies have shown that between 50% to 70% of Americans will need to develop immunity to the virus. Anti-vaxxers may pose an obstacle to achieving this goal, as one study found that about 20% of Americans would be unwilling to receive a COVID-19 vaccine once one becomes widely available.

Requests for comment made to Barrett’s office were unanswered, including about his stance on COVID-19 vaccinations.