Louisiana House Speaker to host holiday gathering during pandemic

State agencies were discouraged from having holiday parties and potlucks this year.

By: - December 15, 2020 10:06 am
Clay Schexnayder

Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, speaks on behalf of Republican leadership in September.

Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder is hosting a holiday open house for House members and their spouses on state property, even though Gov. John Bel Edwards has repeatedly discouraged the public — and state employees specifically — from throwing parties and potlucks over the past several weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, invited all 105 House members and their spouses to attend a gathering near his apartment in the Pentagon Barracks from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. The barracks is a dormitory-style facility next to the state Capitol where many lawmakers live when they are in Baton Rouge on state business.

The open house will be held outside in the barracks’ courtyard in order to make it safer from COVID-19, which spreads more easily inside. Schexnayder plans to serve gumbo and the gathering is supposed to be low-key. House members will “come and go” and attendees are not expected to all be there at the same time, said Lionel Rainey, Schexnayder’s political consultant.

“It won’t be anything big and not all the members are going to be there,” Rainey said.

Schexnayder did not return calls and emails to his office about the gathering. 

Schexnayder’s open house is scheduled for the same night the Louisiana Legislature would typically hold its large Christmas party with hundreds of people, an open bar and a lengthy buffet inside the state Capitol. That event has been canceled because of COVID-19.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has also canceled the annual Christmas party held at the governor’s mansion and specifically told state agencies to refrain from having office parties, potlucks or luncheons this year. In general, he’s requesting that all gatherings — even those held in private homes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — be limited to immediate households this holiday season to help slow the spread of COVID-19. 

“We’ve sort of made it clear that this is not the year to be having Christmas parties,” said Christina Stephens, Edwards’ spokeswoman. “Christmas should not look like what it has looked like in the past.”

Holiday Party Invite
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder sent this invitation to all 105 House members, despite holiday gatherings being discouraged during the pandemic.

Aside from Schexnayder’s open house, the legislative leadership is offering its employees “gumbo to go” Thursday. The staff will be able to come pick up bowls of gumbo outside the Senate President and House Speaker’s offices at lunch time and take it back to their desk or office to eat, said Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. Senators will also be encouraged to come by Cortez’s office and pick up a small present from Cortez and some gumbo. A catering company will provide the food, he said. 

“We are definitely not doing a big holiday party this year,” Cortez said. “It’s unfortunate but probably the right thing to do, especially when our families can’t have normal holiday gatherings.” 

Louisiana has been experiencing an increase in its COVID-19 infection rate, hospitalizations and deaths since November. The uptick prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards to re-impose some restrictions on Louisiana businesses and public gatherings shortly before Thanksgiving. Some of those limitations could apply to Schexnayder’s open house at the Pentagon later this week.

Through his emergency health order, Edwards has capped outdoor gatherings at commercial events 25 percent of the space’s outdoor occupancy or a maximum of 150 people unless a distance of six feet can be maintained between people who aren’t from the same household. The Edwards administration has typically imposed those same restrictions on state government facilities as well. 

By inviting all 105 House members and the spouses of those who are married, Schexnayder’s guest list for his open house is likely over 150 people. The fire marshal’s office — which is tasked with enforcing COVID-19 crowd restrictions — couldn’t say what the outdoor capacity of the Pentagon courtyard might be or whether over 150 people would be able to maintain the required social distance in that space.

“I’m unfamiliar with the Pentagon location,” said Ashley Rodrigue, spokeswoman for the fire marshal. “We do not have a database for every single building in the state and what its occupancy is.”

Rainey doesn’t expect that 150 people will attend Schexnayder’s open house at once. There are six legislative hearings on Thursday and Friday — which will bring several lawmakers to the Capitol on state business– but not all House members will be in Baton Rouge to attend the event, Rainey said. People are also expected to cycle through and not stay for the full two hours.

“There wouldn’t be that many people, and all the people won’t be there at the same time,” Rainey said.

Schexnayder and Edwards have clashed over COVID-19 restrictions. The Speaker signed a petition to throw out the governor’s emergency order — the one that imposes limitations on gatherings — but a Baton Rouge district court judge declared the petition invalid and the restrictions remain in place. The matter is on appeal and expected to go before the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Rainey said Schexnayder’s open house is not intended to defy the governor’s emergency order, but rather to do something nice for the legislators and their spouses during the holiday season.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.