TOPEKA — The Kansas House speaker sent a letter to colleagues Friday notifying them a representative attending organizational meetings at the statehouse earlier in the week tested positive for COVID-19.
The letter was designed to inform lawmakers at meetings Monday to select new leadership for the 2021 legislative session about the potential of being infected with coronavirus. Returning and first-time members of the House and Senate convened before breaking into partisan Republican and Democratic caucuses to debate, nominate and vote on top legislative offices.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year, said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment had been notified that the legislator tested positive.
“We have received word that a case of COVID-19 has been confirmed among those attending the legislative preorganization meeting on Monday,” Ryckman’s letter said. “People who were close contacts, defined as being within 6 feet for 10 minutes or more, have been notified that they are a close contact and will be monitored by public health.”
People not considered a close contact of the infected legislator, who wasn’t named in the letter from Ryckman, were told it was unnecessary to quarantine at this time. Anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 was urged to see a health provider, the letter said. It also said people could develop the illness five to seven days after exposure, but it could take longer.
The notice to members of the House was issued after testing confirmed Rep. Ken Rahjes, a Republican from Agra, had contracted coronavirus. In an interview, Rahjes said he tested positive Thursday for the virus after waking up without a sense of taste or smell. He notified the House speaker, which resulted in the notice to other legislators.
“I was following the protocols of the Centers for Disease Control, have been for weeks,” Rahjes said. “Any time I go out, I have a mask. We go to church, we sit in the back by ourselves.”
Photographs affirm Rahjes was wearing a mask on the House floor as GOP lawmakers considered who would serve as speaker, majority leader and in other posts for the session starting in January.
In addition to spending the day at the Capitol on Monday, Rahjes was a guest at the Kansas State University football game last Saturday in Manhattan. He also had a socially distanced dinner with about a half-dozen people Sunday in Topeka.
Not all legislators in the statehouse meetings adhered to common public health recommendations to wear a face covering. At least one legislator battling COVID-19, Sen. Larry Alley of Winfield, didn’t attend the meetings. Others with fragile medical conditions stayed away.
The issue of face coverings could be a potent point of contention when the 2021 session begins, with some objecting to any form of mask mandate and others demanding a requirement. As the virus has infected more Kansans, especially in rural areas of the state, a larger segment of legislators have worn a mask in public. Early in the pandemic, many Republicans refused as nearly all Democrats work a mask. The doubling of COVID-19 cases and fatalities in Kansas since Nov. 1 prompted additional legislators to comply with KDHE recommendations on masks.
Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican who has a desk on the House floor near Rahjes, said he wore a mask throughout the day and intended to comply with suggestions to wash hands and keep a distance from others due to the pandemic. He said he was an advocate for masks, even if it was modestly effective in discouraging spread of coronavirus.
“I truly believe wearing a mask is a good idea,” he said. “I’m a personal responsibility person. Perhaps it shouldn’t be mandated, but we should take it upon ourselves.”
Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, said he was suprised by the number of Senate colleagues not wearing a mask when the chamber gaveled in Monday for the leadership caucuses.
All members of the Legislature should be required to wear a face covering in the Capitol, he said, because legislative staff, security personnel and anyone else in the building was expected to do so.
“I’m not going to be around people not wearing a mask,” Hawk said.
Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican who endured a case of COVID-19, said all but one member of House leadership wore a mask during the Monday meetings. The inconsistency on mask wearing among rank-and-file members of the House is a concern, he said, but can be remedied by application of a mask rule covering the Capitol.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Johnson said. “It’s a no-brainer. It has nothing to do with liberty. You’ve got to use the tools you’ve got.”
Senate President-elect Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said he would support a program of regularly testing legislators and legislative staff when the session convened. Imposing heavy limitations on people entering the Capitol, such as a mask mandate, does interfere with personal liberty, he said.
“I think it’s better to test,” Masterson said. “I’d like to have testing on a regular basis so we can operate as close to normal as possible. I don’t care if you’re in a mask-mandate county or not, people are getting COVID. It’s not a protection. What we need to do … is to test.”
On Friday, KDHE reported the number of COVID-19 fatalities had risen to 2,072, an increase of 131 since Wednesday. The number of coronavirus-positive people in Kansas expanded to 185,294, which was a surge of 5,491 over a two-day period.