Secrecy around LaFave’s COVID-19 diagnosis prompts concern from journalists, lawmakers

By: - October 1, 2020 5:10 am

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

State Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) announced Tuesday he tested positive for COVID-19. The GOP-led House hasn’t been in session this week, but officials have not answered questions about safety issues, drawing concerns from reporters and legislative officials on Wednesday. 

LaFave, who has previously criticized mask wearing and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency orders, told the Advance in a Tuesday phone interview that he wore a mask during recent Michigan House proceedings and practiced social distancing at all times, something disputed by some of his Democratic colleagues.

He told the Advance Tuesday he did not believe that he contracted coronavirus from the Capitol Building but did believe it happened in Lansing, not in his Upper Peninsula district. He would not said where. He said he doesn’t intend to have contact with anyone until at least Oct. 6.

Two Senate staffers also have recently tested positive for coronavirus. The Senate has been in session this week.

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State Rep. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores) wished LaFave well, but said he wanted Republican leaders in the state Legislature to be more transparent if they’re exposed to COVID-19.

“I wish @BeauMattLaFave well. I also wish that out of respect for his colleagues he and Republican leadership would be more transparent about when he thinks he came into contact with covid-19 and other staff and members that may have come in contact as well,” Hertel wrote. 

State Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) also tweeted he is glad to hear LaFave is doing well. But he has “no words” to describe how he feels about learning from a journalist on Twitter about the matter and not an official in the state House. 

“This potentially risked all of our families,” Koleszar tweeted.

“Transparency in everything” is crucial, said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association (MPA), an organization that promotes the interests of its various news members. 

Transparency is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, McGraw told the Advance. The Michigan Legislature might benefit by implementing additional safety protocols, like a testing policy, in order to get an idea of where COVID-19 is spreading and who’s carrying the virus, she said.

LaFave isn’t the first legislator to have COVID-19. State Reps. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) and Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) and state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) also had it. The disease is believed to have played a factor in the death of former Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit).

Several lawmakers raised concern over safety protocols after Robinson’s death and as more of their colleagues were diagnosed with coronavirus.

“It’s not just the [safety of the] Legislature that we’re talking about here,” McGraw said. “We’re talking about reporters and obviously staff.”

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McGraw urged journalists who cover public meetings or events to continue taking precautions.

“We encourage all of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] things. Washing your hands as much as possible, wearing a mask, maintaining distance — you know, journalists doing everything they can to keep themselves safe,” McGraw said. 

McGraw said it’s good LaFave issued a notice that he had contracted COVID-19. 

“If people know and are informed, that’s going to help everybody,” she said.

Several reporters noted the risks for journalists who cover the Capitol. Associated Press reporter David Eggert noted on Twitter that many Republicans and some Democrats aren’t wearing masks and “an infection effectively disrupts government business for days as a result.” 

He added that he’s “largely been holed up in my house for various reasons (spouse working, too, & kids are in school remotely). I can’t get to the legislative sessions, which is highly frustrating as a reporter. But I’ll be honest. The lack of masks – indoors – gives me major pause.”

Michigan Radio Network reporter Rick Pluta agreed.

State Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt), who has said she had COVID-19 symptoms during the spring, tweeted that her request to state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) for a mask requirement has gone unanswered.

“My letter to the speaker seeking mask requirement for everyone on floor & in HOB [House Office Building] has never rec’d an answer. My resolution to require masks for everyone on the House floor hasn’t been heard. I submitted these in May. I’ve re-sent my letter, & I request a hearing every week,” she tweeted

State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) on Wednesday tweeted that LaFave didn’t wear a mask during a Sept. 22 meeting of the state House Judiciary Committee or while on the House floor. LaFave is majority vice-chair of that committee and Elder is a member. Elder did not return a request for comment.

In a Wednesday Twitter thread, Crain’s Detroit reporter Chad Livengood pointed out that LaFave did wear a face covering for portions of the Sept. 22 committee meeting. 

However, he pointed out LaFave did not seem to be wearing one for the committee’s Sept. 24 meeting.

When asked if he had worn a mask during the Sept. 22 meeting in question, LaFave offered no comment. He instead directed the Advance to the Sept. 22 House Judiciary Committee meeting video, in which he does wear a mask for portions of time where he isn’t speaking or asking questions. 

He used it to push back against Elder’s statement that he hadn’t worn a mask during that particular House session.

The Advance also reached out to state House spokesman Gideon D’Assandro for comment on tweets from Democratic lawmakers that criticize LaFave and House Republicans for not having more transparency when it comes to COVID-19 cases among legislators. 

D’Assandro’s only response was to send video stills of Elder without a mask at hearings.

State Rep. Brian Elder | House GOP photo

Advance reporter Ken Coleman contributed to this story.

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C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore

C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.