ST. PAUL — Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka on Sunday, Nov. 15, announced that he'd tested positive for the coronavirus, making him the latest member of the Senate GOP caucus to be confirmed to have COVID-19.
Gazelka, an East Gull Lake Republican, in a news release said he tested positive after experiencing symptoms since Monday, Nov. 9, and remained in quarantine while on a trip with his wife. Gazelka is the third senator to contract the illness after a Nov. 5 GOP caucus meeting at the Capitol complex.
"I did not attend the session on Thursday due to a scheduled trip, and we extended our trip to avoid breaking my quarantine," Gazelka said. "We followed CDC and airline requirements during our travel and I’m very thankful my wife, Maralee, has tested negative for COVID-19."
Sens. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, last week announced that they'd tested positive for the illness. And a Senate GOP spokeswoman said no lawmakers or staff who'd tested positive for the illness or exhibited symptoms attended the special session in-person on Thursday.
But Democrats in the Senate on Friday said they weren't notified of the positive cases among their GOP peers and voiced concerns about the safety of all lawmakers, staff and others who attended the special session without knowing about the possible transmission at the Capitol. And on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, called for Gazelka's resignation as majority leader following a report from Fox 9 that the Senate GOP hosted a party with more than 100 guests on Nov. 5.
"As state leaders, it is our responsibility to lead by example. The Senate Majority Leader is entrusted with the responsibility of keeping all members and staff in the Senate safe," Kent said in a news release. "Senator Gazelka has failed to do both. Under his leadership, Republican caucus members have engaged in high-risk behaviors, he has misled Minnesotans about their actions, and they have made excuses instead of being accountable."
Gov. Tim Walz on Saturday echoed those concerns, saying the illness spreads regardless of partisan affiliation and elected officials had a responsibility to share information about potential COVID-19 cases.
“If we know of a positive case, we have a moral obligation to share that information with others so that they can protect themselves and their families," Walz said. “As elected officials, we must lead by example. I simply do not understand why Senate Republicans chose only to share that there were positive cases in their caucus with members of their own party before Thursday’s floor session."
Gazelka on Sunday agreed that the issue should not be politicized and he called out Democrats for taking aim at Republicans.
“The blaming and shaming of a positive COVID diagnosis has got to stop," Gazelka said. "Senate operations are an essential service and precautions were taken to prevent spreading COVID; no one was put at any more risk than any other special session. The deliberate choice to use a COVID diagnosis as a political tool to blame just Republicans when community spread is uncontrolled is indicative of failed leadership looking for a scapegoat. Minnesotans deserve better.”
Gazelka on Sunday said he was not experiencing major symptoms and expected to make a full recovery. A GOP spokeswoman said he'd traveled to Florida prior to developing any symptoms and before he learned he'd been exposed to the illness. She said he followed the guidelines for air travel.
The pandemic has fueled divisions at the Capitol as lawmakers have split (largely on party lines) about the use of masks and social distancing measures to curb COVID-19's spread. As case counts, hospitalizations and deaths have surged in the state, Republicans have acknowledged the severity of the illness, despite prior statements.
And while lawmakers in five prior special sessions voted to end Walz's emergency powers to address the pandemic, the Minnesota Senate on Thursday skipped that vote and Gazelka told MPR the virus was surging and Minnesotans needed to pay attention to it.
The Minnesota House of Representatives considered a motion to take up a resolution ending the peacetime emergency, but it failed, as did an effort to allow lawmakers to strike or amend executive orders after 30 days in effect.