The Missouri Senate will not meet next week, effectively making its spring break at least two weeks long.
Lawmakers saw the same kind of decisions being made elsewhere for schools, colleges, sports and other events amid the COVID-19 pandemic and followed suit.
"This is obviously somewhat unprecedented, and something that kind of popped up on us relatively quickly as far as the idea of deciding whether or not we needed to be here next week," Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said Thursday at a news conference. Rowden stood beside the Senate's President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, and Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, who also made the decision with Rowden, in consultation with Missouri House leaders.
The Missouri Legislature's spring break is scheduled for March 23-27. The Senate is effectively shut down until at least March 30, but House majority leaders announced Thursday they plan to work next week on the state's budget. They said the House will "evaluate daily any additional steps that need to be taken to ensure the safety of those who visit and work in the Capitol."
On Tuesday, the floor of the House chamber and the House lounge were closed to the public, though the upper galleries remained open. People without legislative business were also asked to stop visiting the Capitol.
The House scheduled a budget committee hearing for Sunday afternoon for the appropriations bills that form the state budget. The House's website indicated a live feed of the hearing will be available.
On Thursday, Minority Floor Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said House Democrats are requesting Gov. Mike Parson declare a state of emergency "so that the General Assembly can access the budget reserve fund for the emergency financial resources necessary to respond to this public health crisis."
"In a rapidly evolving situation, state government must act swiftly and decisively but with the flexibility to adapt to ever-shifting facts," Quade said in a news release.
The news release noted other House Democrat proposals include:
State funding to reimburse medical providers for treatment over the next month of people without insurance;
Additional funding for county health departments, nonprofit organizations that serve food to children and for mobile testing units;
Authorizing mandatory paid sick leave over the next six months for businesses with 50 or more employees;
Furloughing non-violent inmates from the state's Department of Corrections to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in the confined spaces of prisons;
Requiring insurance providers to cover COVID-19 testing;
Protecting hourly state employees from the possible closure of state facilities;
Allowing the state's Department of Health and Senior Services to "erect temporary hospitals and quarantine facilities as necessary to respond to changing conditions;"
Directing the Department of Social Services to refrain from implementing new SNAP rules set to take effect April 1;
Implementing emergency orders to suspend home evictions and the shut off of utility services;
Canceling plans to cut Medicaid rates for hospitals and other health care providers.
"In addition to accessing money from the state budget reserve fund, the state also could use $174 million in unencumbered funds reimbursed to the state by the federal government for previously provided services," the news release added.
The Senate's plans and decision
The Senate will not be completely adjourned through the end of the month, as a technical session is scheduled for the morning of March 20.
Jonathan Lorenz, Senate's communications director, said the session is for procedural purposes — per the Missouri Constitution, once in regular session, the Senate or House, at least without the consent of the other, cannot be adjourned for more than 10 days at a time.
Lorenz said all senators are welcome to attend the technical session, but no business will be conducted, and only the presiding officer and floor leader — or someone serving in the capacity of floor leader — will gavel in the session.
Schatz and Rowden said the Senate will continue to monitor developments in the COVID-19 pandemic — caused by a new coronavirus that emerged in China late last year that has since spread around the world and within the U.S. — and communication over spring break will lead to decisions as how to move forward after the break.
Before Thursday, Missouri had seen one confirmed case of the virus, in the St. Louis area, from a woman who had traveled from Italy.
Parson's office announced Thursday a second case had come back with a "presumptive positive" test result — which means it had yet to be confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That case is in Greene County.
"I think at this point, anything's possible," Rowden said as to whether the Senate's break might be extended even further. "We're continuing to have conversations with the Office of Administration and Governor's Office as to what the world looks like when we come back, and what additional steps could be taken to make sure that we can continue to do the business of the people, but do it in a way that maintains as much safety as we can possibly provide, given the parameters, given this building.
"I don't believe we have the constitutional authority to work in a remote manner, so I don't think that's on the table," he added.
In addition to the prohibition on being adjourned for more than 10 days at a time, the Missouri Constitution bars the Senate or House from adjourning "to any other place than that in which the two houses may be sitting."
Constituents will continue to have access to their state senators, though. "As staff compete their work on March 12, 2020, the Missouri Senate and Senators' offices will close and remain closed through March 29, 2020. Steps have been taken to ensure offices have secure remote access to Senate phones, emails, and network resources. During the closure, employees are expected to work from home and maintain regular business hours. Missourians will continue to have phone and email access to their Senators and Senators' staff," according to Thursday's news release.
Rowden said: "There's some people who are going to be disappointed that we're taking time off I'm sure there will be a wide variety of opinions. I don't expect everybody to understand or be appreciative or excited about the decision that we made.
"That's OK. We are in these positions because we are tasked with making tough decisions, and this is a decision we've made. If my constituents have a different opinion of what we should be doing, then I'm welcome to have that conversation."
At a Wednesday night caucus meeting, the question was asked, "We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to get done next week — is any of that urgent enough that we can't delay it for a week and have that conversation post-spring break?'" Rowden said Thursday.
"The general consensus," he said, "was that the answer to that question was 'no.'"
That consensus, he suggested, was based on "us seeing what everybody else is seeing, what's happening around the world, certainly what's happening in various parts of our country."
He added: "I think everybody has to make their own determination based on their own event, based on their own variables. We just happen to be in a very unique place here, in that we come from all over the state, as do all of the other people who come here — and even take that a step further, people that fly in to testify on a bill, they're flying in from other states, and we have no understanding of where they've come from, the variables around their situation."
On its last day of business for at least the next couple weeks, the Senate unanimously passed three bills — Senate bills 553, 669 and 866 — and passed 21-10 a House bill, 1693, that establishes a prescription drug monitoring program, or PDMP, for the state, intended to help combat the opioid addiction crisis.
Missouri is the last state in the country to approve a PDMP.
William Woods moves classes online
Following a trend of other colleges and universities' decisions around the country, Fulton's William Woods University announced Thursday all its academic classes and cohorts will be moved online for the remainder of the semester, effective Monday according to a news release on the university's website.
"The University will maintain its strictly online policy until the end of the spring semester and final exams, which will be completed by April 24," according to the news release.
However, the main campus in Fulton will remain open, faculty and staff will continue normal work and hours, students may remain on campus or go home, and residence halls, the dining hall and all campus services will remain open.
William Woods' President Jahnae H. Barnett said, "While there are no confirmed coronavirus cases on the William Woods campus, we are taking this proactive measure after considerable contemplation to reduce the likelihood of the virus' spread on both our campus and the Fulton community."
Barnett added, "We reached this decision through an abundance of caution and believe it is in the best interest of everyone in the WWU community."