As the Senate debated, protesters blared truck horns and played “God Bless the USA” outside the Capitol
By Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle
Democrats in the Oregon Senate voted to kick a Republican senator out of the Capitol for not wearing a mask on Thursday as outside the building protesters opposed to COVID restrictions blared truck horns.
This was the latest escalation in a long-running conflict between Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Myrtle Creek, and Senate President Peter Courtney, who controls COVID protocol in the Senate. Courtney had Heard removed from the Senate chambers in December and earlier this month. This time, Heard refused to leave, prompting a lengthy debate and party-line vote on whether he should be removed.
Heard’s temporary expulsion, supported by 18 Democrats and opposed by nine Republicans, ends if he chooses to wear a mask. Otherwise, he won’t be allowed to participate in debate or votes on any proposals before the Legislature, though he could still participate in virtual committee meetings.
Before voting to remove Heard, Courtney pleaded with him to wear a mask and remain in the Senate.
“We’re not complete as an institution if you leave,” Courtney said. “We have a lot to do before we end this session… I’d like you to be part of that.”
As senators debated removing Heard, a child threw a tantrum in the hall outside the Senate, a small group of trucks blared their horns in front of the Capitol and amplified speakers played the song “God Bless the USA” from a protest outside.
A newly formed group, Oregon Natural Resource Industries, organized the protest in imitation of the Canadian trucker convoy that obstructed commerce between the U.S. and Canada to protest Canadian vaccination requirements. Several dozen people, trucks, and a crane hoisting a giant U.S. flag gathered in front of the Capitol on Thursday morning, and about a dozen protesters entered the Capitol without masks.
The protest was planned before Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday morning that the state will lift its indoor mask requirement, including for schools, by March 19 and that the COVID state of emergency she declared two years ago will end April 1.
The legislative session will end by Monday, March 7, and rules requiring masks in the building are expected to remain in place until then. Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, has proposed repealing that rule. He left a copy of the proposed rule change on other senators’ desks on Thursday and urged them to consider it on Friday.
In the meantime, he said, the Senate should extend Heard the “grace” to allow him to represent his constituents and trust that his constituents will punish him if they disagree with his actions.
“We all know this mask mandate is going away,” Knopp said. “What we’re really haggling about is a few days and whether or not we should allow a member to finish up this session and be able to vote as his constituents elected him to do.”
Beyond that, Knopp and other Republicans argued, many other senators fail to follow the mask rules, which state that everyone in the Capitol must wear a mask except when alone in offices. If the Senate removed everyone who has broken that rule, there wouldn’t be a quorum, Knopp said.
“Please don’t tell my wife this, but believe it or not throughout this session there have been times that I haven’t worn a mask while walking through the garage or down the hallway, maybe between my office and the restroom,” said Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River. “And I’ve seen quite a few members do the same thing.”
Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland and the only member of his party other than Courtney to speak during debate, noted that Oregon’s COVID death rate is half the national average. That alone is proof that the state’s mask mandates work, he said.
None of the senators know whether they’re carrying COVID, and wearing masks helps ensure that they don’t unwittingly spread the virus, he said. So far this year, at least one state senator, Portland Democrat Akasha Lawrence-Spence, contracted COVID.
“We wear masks to protect ourselves, but more to the point, we wear masks to protect others,” Dembrow said.
Heard said his protest wasn’t about him, but about children. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last June that suicide attempts among young people spiked in 2020 and 2021, which Heard attributed to the way COVID disrupted daily life.
“Get all the vaccines you want,” he said. “Wear all the masks you want. Wrap yourself up like a mummy if you want, but don’t force my kids or someone else’s against their will.”
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