COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Democratic Ohio senator is refusing to return to Columbus until Republican Senate leadership develops an “agreed upon health and safety protocol,” after a legislative staffer tested positive for COVID-19.
State Sen. Theresa Fedor, of Toledo, said she is angry she learned about the positive result through her staff, who told her about it on Monday, and not through official channels.
Instead of coming to Wednesday’s committee hearings and Senate session, Fedor got a coronavirus test in Toledo. The results came back negative on Thursday.
Fedor, who is 64 and falls into a more vulnerable category for COVID-19, said she decided, after talking with her family, to close her office and told her staff to work from home until they can get tested. She does not plan to come back until Senate leaders present a plan that she’s comfortable with, she said.
“I will not put my life and my staff’s lives into their denying hands,” she said. “Especially when some Senate Republicans refuse to wear a mask and protect me and my staff from a deadly virus.”
Like in general society, face masks have become something of a political flashpoint in the Ohio legislature. Generally, all Democratic members have worn them while many Republicans have not, although more Republicans tend to wear them in the Senate than in the House. House Republicans voted down a Democratic proposal in May that would have required masks to be worn in legislative chambers and committee rooms during official House proceedings.
Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has encouraged all Ohioans to wear a mask while in indoor, public spaces.
John Fortney, a spokesman for Senate President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican, said Ohio Senate leaders don’t comment on medical issues affecting employees.
“Ohio Department of Health guidelines have been followed by the Senate since the beginning of the COVID-19 threat,” he said. “This includes social distancing and how committees and sessions are conducted, to how the potential for a positive test with an employee is handled.”
Giulia Cambieri, a spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, a Euclid Democrat, declined to comment.
Sen. Nickie Antonio, a Lakewood Democrat, said her understanding is the staffer was physically in the Senate building with other staff, but not on a day when elected senators were there. Senate offices are in the Statehouse, while most House staff and members work in a state office tower across the street.
“Recommended procedures were then followed for the folks that came into any kind of contact with this person,” she said.
Sen. Sandra Williams, a Cleveland Democrat, said she didn’t know about the staffer until Fedor informed her on Wednesday. Williams said she has an autoimmune disorder, and is considering not coming to Columbus next week.
“I have to decide if it’s important enough for me to risk my life and go to Columbus for a vote, or just stay at home,” she said.
Sen. Matt Dolan, a Chagrin Falls Republican, said he’s confident in the safety protocols adopted by Senate leadership, include cleaning microphones used by witnesses during committee hearings and the computers and work stations that senators use.
“I think the protocol in place in the Statehouse is very good, and I feel safe,” said Dolan, who wore a mask on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Ohio’s legislative staff returned to the office late last month after months of working from home following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
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