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Two state lawmakers test positive for coronavirus as Capitol closes to visitors

Albany – Two members of the state Assembly have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, pushing officials to bar visitors from the state Capitol, the seat of the state's government at a time when the governor and lawmakers are trying to deal with the spreading virus and enact a new $175 billion state spending plan for the April 1 fiscal year start.

Word of the cases now hitting the state Legislature – Democrats Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron, both from Brooklyn – comes as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie vowed "swift action" will be taken. The Capitol has been closed to visitors, which will undergo "intensive cleaning," he said. Cuomo and Heastie said legislators and staff who had come in contact with the two lawmakers – that would be quite a number of people – will be tested.

Weinstein is chair of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, which has day-to-day involvement in the creation of a new state budget. She put out a statement Saturday night saying she had not been in Albany since March 4 -- as she was attending to personal business in her district -- but that she did not start experiencing symptoms until March 11. She said she self-quarantined and is resting comfortably.

Now, in a building where closed-door meetings are as old as the Capitol itself, lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers of the legislative and executive branches will have to expose themselves to a new coronavirus reality that dictates distance and limited contact between humans.

Officials last week told The Buffalo News that a scaled-down budget was being examined in order to push for an early adoption of the budget before the March 31 deadline. Talk has been raging for more than a week that a host of controversial items, such as legalization of marijuana, will be pushed out of the budget talks in order to focus more directly on state spending and revenue plans.

Cuomo did suggest some controversial items will be pushed aside in this year's budget, but that he wants some items -- including changes to the controversial new cashless-bail law and a ban on flavored vaping products -- to still be addressed. He did not mention the marijuana plan that he and lawmakers were trying to include in the budget.

Cuomo, either knowing or predicting events, told reporters earlier Saturday night in a telephone conference call that he expected some lawmakers – in a body of 213 people in the Senate and Assembly – to come down with the coronavirus. He said efforts are underway to try to expedite passage of a final spending plan well before the March 31 deadline.

Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, broke the news of his colleagues on Twitter shortly after 9 p.m. Saturday. He said neither of the lawmakers have been in Albany since early March.

Barron's office had no immediate comment. Weinstein said she is "disappointed that I cannot be with my colleagues as we work toward a budget agreement.''

The march to a new budget deal could feature a dramatic change from the Capitol's usual scene in March, where halls are filled with lobbyists, various budget stakeholders and protestors taking over various spots in the hallways and historic stairways, as well as the day-to-day visitors who come to marvel at the building's competing forms of architecture.

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