AUGUSTA, Maine — An incoming Republican state senator from Oxford recently tested positive for the coronavirus, showing how the pandemic can throw a wrench in legislative activities as a new House and Senate are set to be sworn in this week.
Rick Bennett said he was tested on Saturday after he started feeling under the weather and developed a sore throat on Friday. He received the results on Sunday and immediately notified Maine Senate leadership.
Bennett may be the first lawmaker in the state to test positive for the virus, which has afflicted over 11,750 Mainers and killed 194. Spokespeople for Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate said they had not heard of any diagnoses other than Bennett’s.
Bennett said the last time he was around other lawmakers was on Nov. 19 for the Senate’s new member orientation, which took place in the House chambers at the State House. He also attended an organizational caucus meeting in early November, where Republican senators chose their floor leaders. He said both events were socially distanced.
His illness so close to the convening of the 130th Legislature illustrates how the pandemic may disrupt what is already certain to be an unusual session.
Bennett was supposed to lead the opening prayer for the Senate on Wednesday, which is swearing-in day. His diagnosis also means he will not be among the lawmakers sworn in that day at the Augusta Civic Center.
He said he hopes to take the oath after his isolation period ends on Dec. 12. That means he will also miss out on voting for the Senate president and the positions of secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general and state auditor.
Bennett will have to figure out how to navigate the discussions around bills submitted and legislative priorities — including his proposals to reform the legislative process — remotely. He said such discussions usually happen in person and are wrapped up by mid-December.
He said he was “frustrated” by the illness but was not showing severe symptoms. Bennett said he was not sure where he could have contracted the virus and was worried he may have spread it to others.
“It’s an awful, scary thing that affects everyone differently,” he said.
Bennett — who served 12 years in the Senate in the 1990s and early 2000s and is a former Maine Republican Party chair — said most of his meetings recently have been telephonic. But he did attend his church, the First Congregational Church of South Paris, on Nov. 22, where he sang a solo unmasked. His church requires people to wear masks until they sing, and the singer is at least 15 feet away, he said. People let out more aerosol droplets when singing than when speaking, so the activity carries an increased risk of spreading COVID-19.
Lawmakers are still workshopping how to meet safely during the pandemic. The Civic Center will likely hold House and Senate sessions when the full chambers meet, and committee meetings will be scattered throughout the State House. Legislative leaders are still working out how members of the public will participate.