State Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, speaks during a session of the House in February, 2019. Sutherland and five other GOP lawmakers filed suit last month over rules in the House that require members to be vaccinated to be on the House floor. (Herald file photo)

State Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, speaks during a session of the House in February, 2019. Sutherland and five other GOP lawmakers filed suit last month over rules in the House that require members to be vaccinated to be on the House floor. (Herald file photo)

Editorial: State House covid rules won’t exclude GOP lawmakers

A requirement for vaccination only means those unvaccinated will have to attend sessions remotely.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Not withstanding the refusal of a handful of state Republican lawmakers to get vaccinations — and their lawsuit objecting to the requirements to attend House sessions in person — the show will go on when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 10 for its regular 60-day session.

Six Republican members of the state House — including Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls — filed suit last week against Democrats in the House and the body’s chief clerk because of rules set by the Executive Rules Committee that require proof of vaccination for representatives and others to be on the House floor. Five of those suing, including Sutherland, say they have not been vaccinated; Sutherland has declined a covid-19 vaccination, claiming an adverse reaction to an earlier flu shot.

“Try as the Democrat majority might to keep us locked out, these new actions are a new level of abridgement of basic legal rights and constitutionally guaranteed representative access. What’s more, these rules are ethically deficient and morally corrupt in their attempt to segregate and divide,” the Republican lawmakers said in a statement.

That would be concerning, if true. And it’s not.

No one is being locked out of House debate or votes and none of the representatives’ constituents — about 20 of 98 House lawmakers have yet to submit proof of vaccination — are being denied representation. As it was conducted earlier during this year’s legislative session, much of the work of the Legislature will be conducted virtually through teleconferencing; with opportunities for members to address fellow lawmakers and be present on the House floor; they just have to show proof of vaccination to do so.

Both House and Senate have set their rules and procedures for how the session will go this year. The House rules allow representatives and some staff to be present within the Capitol, their offices and the House floor with proof of vaccination, self-checks for signs of illness and continued observance of mask, hygiene and social distancing practices.

Admittedly, the rules for the Senate — where Democrats also are in the majority — are looser than those of the House; Senate members don’t have to show proof of vaccination but will be tested prior to days of scheduled floor votes. But numbering 49, the Senate membership is half the size of the House, allowing for more physical distance among lawmakers.

As well, a limited number of the public will be allowed in the galleries of the House and Senate but will have to show either proof of vaccination or a negative test for covid within the previous 72 hours.

Regardless of whether the Legislature is in session or not, everyone expects some theater from lawmakers of both parties on a range of issues. Here, however, the claims that rules meant to protect the health and safety of lawmakers, staff and the public are trampling on Republicans’ ability to participate in the legislative process and denying the representation of constituents are overblown and unproductive.

Complaints would be one thing, if it stopped at that; taking up a court’s time with a lawsuit that is unlikely to go anywhere is a waste of public resources.

Sutherland and his fellow plaintiffs might claim that it’s their right to refuse the vaccine, even if it comes at the risk of catching covid; but those lawmakers also must acknowledge that the risk cannot be limited to themselves. Covid has shown itself to be particularly contagious among those who are unvaccinated, yet it can be spread to anyone.

The lawsuit, as well, is particularly ill-timed.

While covid cases are continuing a decline in Snohomish County and Washington state since a peak in September, other regions in the U.S. and the world are seeing a new surge in cases, especially states in the Midwest and Northeast. And a new and potentially more contagious variant, omicron, first identified in south African countries, has now been detected in the U.S. The first reported case was identified Wednesday in California, in a traveler who had returned Nov. 22 from South Africa.

There’s much still to learn about omicron, how transmissible it is, its effects on health, the precautions that will be needed and the effectiveness of existing vaccines to protect against it and its mutations.

The general consensus is that current vaccines should continue to offer good protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death, but may be less generally effective in preventing transmission and breakthrough infections. Protection against omicron also may be heightened with a booster vaccination, now recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for those 18 and older.

Still. it will be weeks before more is known about omicron and months before testing can begin on covid vaccines that are specifically targeted to protect against the variant. The legislative session, by contrast, begins in about five weeks.

We all have had to live with changes to our routines because of covid. And yes, it’s gotten old. Finding new backgrounds for Zoom chats has lost its novelty.

But there is nothing in the covid precaution rules in the House or Senate that will keep any state lawmaker from participating in meetings of committees and caucuses, nor in floor debate or votes. Regardless of what the lawsuit claims, residents of Sutherland’s 39th Legislative District should expect him to participate in the coming session. Whether that’s in person or remotely, that’s still up to him.

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