Out Philadelphia Democrats call out COVID threat at State House

Rep. Brian Sims and Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta have called out a COVID-19 threat posed by a Republican legislator who tested positive for the virus but hid the information from Democrats.

With 253 lawmakers, the Pennsylvania legislature is the largest full-time legislature in the U.S. On May 28, anger and outrage erupted over the revelation that Republicans hid the fact that Rep. Andrew Lewis had tested positive for the coronavirus, self-isolated and recovered.

At press time COVID-19 had killed over 108,000 Americans.

The legislature has continued to meet during the pandemic under rules that permit lawmakers to vote from home or from their Capitol offices, or to vote in person. Lewis, from Harrisburg-area, said he was tested three weeks ago, learned the results the following week and did not reveal the information out of respect for others in his personal life who were impacted. Rep. Russ Diamond, another Republican, also self-isolated.

Sims sits on a House Committee with Lewis.

Rep. Kevin J. Boyle, Democratic chair for the House State Government Committee, requested an investigation. “lf it was known on May 20th that member(s) were either positive or in quarantine, we needed to know that on May 20th,” Boyle wrote in a statement. “Instead, we heard about it on May 27th from the Associated Press. We absolutely need to know more about what circumstances lead to this ill-advised decision by House Republican leadership.

Sims was the first Democrat to respond publicly to the information on the night of May 27. He immediately took to Twitter with a long thread in which he called out the Republican silence and spoke about the threat to Democrats and their families who had been in close contact with Lewis. Sims also revealed that he had donated a kidney last year, which put him at greater risk from the virus

Additionally, Sims demanded the resignation of Speaker of the House Mike Turzai.

On May 29, Democrats called for changes that would require masks on the floor and in committee meetings. Sims said in floor remarks that the decision to keep the positive test a secret put others at risk.
Sims rejected Republicans’ dismissive response to the Democrats’ outrage. It was revealed that at least two Republicans who sat close to Lewis had self-isolated because they knew about his diagnosis. Sims said, “To pretend that a member here coming to session only interacts with one, two, three people, that’s ridiculous, we all know better.”

Turzai said that he had been unaware of Lewis’ diagnosis, which other members have refuted. Turzai said he would disclose if he became infected and said he would support others disclosing.

But Turzai also expressed anger at Sims, and chided him for calling him by his first and last names during his speech. Turzai said, “We are not using this facility to make those kind of statements. My title is Speaker.”

During the upheaval on the floor, Rep. Jerry Knowles called Sims “a little girl,” a comment heard throughout the chamber. Sims said the comment spoke to the misogyny rife among Republicans in the legislature.

Rep. Rob Matzie, a Democrat also from outside Pittsburgh, said lawmakers are held to higher standards than the general public. He said everyone in the legislature had a duty to disclose if they test positive for COVID-19. “I have to believe that if Ben Franklin had COVID-19, he’d tell everyone,” Matzie said
In an interview with NBC Philadelphia, Kenyatta said, “What we need right now is what we have needed all along — accountability. The GOP COVID cover-up risks the health and safety of my family, of my colleagues’ families, some of whom have members who are immuno-compromised. They [Republicans] risked the health and safety of our staff.”

Lewis said he contacted the Republican Human Resources Department when he was informed of his diagnosis — which was already a week after he had shown symptoms and been tested. Lewis said he followed CDC guidelines for notification of those he’d been in close contact with during the possible exposure period before his last day in the Capitol, May 14. Sims was never contacted.

In his video, Sims noted that House Republicans had been arguing it was safe to reopen more of the state, yet were hiding the fact that one of their own members had contracted the virus and put others at risk.
Kenyatta viewed the actions of Lewis and other Republicans as “hypocrisy,” noting that Republican lawmakers had been “calling to lift the governor’s mitigation efforts with no plan” on how to deal with the social distancing measures or testing in workplaces not unlike the close-quarters of the state house. “We aren’t even safe where we work in the State Capitol,” Kenyatta asserted.

For the majority of those infected, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within several weeks. But for older adults, people with pre-existing conditions and others, it can cause severe illness and death. Thus far 1.9 million Americans have tested positive for the virus. Coronavirus disporportionately affects folks of color due to systemic inequities.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat running for re-election, has thus far declined to investigate the situation.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.