‘Enter at your own risk:’ COVID-19 cases at statehouse spark Dems’ concern

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, at podium. Photo from Ohio House website.

Two administrative staffers entered Thomas Horan’s office at the Statehouse on Tuesday with a simple message: Go home, you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 at work.

On Wednesday, they told him to come back. Turns out they had the wrong Thomas. 

The case of mistaken identity, shared by Horan and the state lawmaker he works for, comes on the heels of the confirmation of a third case of COVID-19 in the Statehouse in the last two weeks.

They seem to be running their own inside contact tracing operation, unbeknownst to any of us,” said Democratic Rep. Jessica Miranda, Horan’s boss. “I don’t know if the majority party has been briefed on what the process is, but I know we surely have not.”

Several House employees who requested anonymity said a House Republican staffer tested positive for COVID-19 this week, including one staffer who spoke to the infected person directly. A House spokeswoman confirmed to Cleveland.com that an aide was infected.

“They’re trying to keep this with a very secretive nature as to who’s testing positive and not really properly warning folks,” Miranda said.

The GOP aide’s diagnosis comes after Democratic Rep. Stephanie Howse announced Monday she contracted the virus, and a Senate aide tested positive in late June.

On-record interviews with Democratic lawmakers and background interviews with staff paint a picture of political hires seemingly handling contact tracing and quarantine orders in-house instead of through the health department.

Employees say there’s no transparency when there’s a positive case, and they’re left to themselves to figure out who has been quarantined and triangulate who has been infected.

“We’ve gotten into the season of politicizing an infection,” Howse said in an interview Wednesday as she rides out the disease’s course at home.

“While the Republicans are trying to prove a point that this isn’t for real, they’re really going to mess around and cause someone an untimely death because of their unwillingness to take on the necessary precautions.”

Majority staff have refused to state how many employees were sent home to quarantine. 

Since the pandemic began, House Republicans have voted to limit the power of the state health director to issue orders, to slow down the contact tracing process by requiring written consent, and to reject requirements that lawmakers and staff wear masks inside the Capitol.

The city of Columbus requires all individuals to wear face coverings in indoor, public spaces, and Ohio Department of Health Interim Director Lance Himes ordered the same in Franklin County late Wednesday evening.

In an email to House staff Tuesday, Kim Hartman, who runs HR for the House and allegedly ordered Horan into quarantine by mistake, said the orders “do not impact the current protocols” in the House.

“Staff may continue to wear masks on House floors and should continue to follow all other safety protocols the House has implemented,” she said.

The friction comes amid a surging caseload in Ohio and Franklin County (which harbors the Statehouse) in particular. State data shows Franklin County leads Ohio with about 11,000 cases — nearly 1,100 in July alone.

Hartman, as well as a spokeswoman for GOP House Speaker Larry Householder, did not respond to emails and phone calls for this report. Three Republican lawmakers, including two whose aides are believed to have been quarantined, also did not respond to interview requests.

The House is on recess, and Howse said her staff is walking into an unsafe workplace for the majority party’s political purposes, when everyone could be working from home.

“What are people mainly doing? Answering phones, checking emails, and doing research,” she said. “You can do that from absolutely anywhere.”

House lawmakers’ offices are in the Riffe Center downtown, which also hosts the Department of Commerce, Development Services Agency, and other agencies, boards and commissions. 

Unlike the representatives, “the majority of staff do remain in a work-from-home status,” according to Melissa Vince, spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative Services.

The House of Representatives called staff off a work-from-home plan on June 1.

A Columbus Public Health spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries Wednesday but has said in the past that public disclosure of positive cases is generally up to the employer.

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine, said the governor won’t enforce mask orders for employees of other branches of government.

However, he said they’re “worried” about viral spread from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals.

Howse said if the Republican majority continues to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, the Capitol will remain unsafe.

“Enter at your own risk, that’s what people need to know,” she said. “You enter at your own risk.”

Marty Schladen contributed to this report.