Utah lawmakers are already preparing to hold the 2021 session, which begins in January, in person, adding COVID-19 precautions.
House and Senate leaders say they plan to implement daily, rapid testing for lawmakers and staffers physically in the chambers. The Utah Health Department will administer the tests. That’s in addition to adding plexiglass dividers between lawmakers' desks.
“The chambers are like a fishbowl, so even with those dividers, there’s some concern,” Senate President Stuart Adams said.
Adams, R-Layton, says the health department has the rapid DNA tests available. Lawmakers and staff will also have the option to work virtually as well.
Rapid DNA testing is not as accurate as standard coronavirus tests, though when given day in and day out can help stop big outbreaks. Studies show the 15-minute tests missed a high number of infections. The White House has used rapid DNA tests, but that didn’t stop the virus from spreading in the West Wing. President Donald Trump was hospitalized earlier in October.
Rapid testing is just one part of the equation as Utah lawmakers grapple with how to handle the 45-day session. Add in allowing for public access to legislative hearings, lobbyists, and the capitol press corps and you get a sense of just how difficult this problem is going to be.
Lawmakers have held four special sessions since the regular session ended in March. The first two were almost entirely virtually, while the later ones had some lawmakers participating online and some in person.
Currently, construction is underway on four new committee rooms at the state Capitol complex that will be as large as the biggest hearing room in the House office building. That will allow lawmakers and the public to effectively social distance during hearings. None of the smaller committee rooms will be used during the session.
Legislative leaders and staffers have brainstormed other ideas. One floated earlier in the year was to copy the “NBA bubble” scenario, isolating legislators in the same place during the session to eliminate exposure to the public, but that was quickly scrapped as many legislators would not agree to leave their homes and families for 6 ½ weeks.
Another suggestion that was quickly abandoned was moving the Senate into the House Chamber, which would allow the 29 senators to maintain social distance during floor time. The 75 representatives would need a much larger space for putting the recommended 6 feet between them. There was talk of moving the House to the Vivint Smart Home Arena, home to the Utah Jazz.
Leaders are also urging lawmakers to get their proposed legislation drafted as soon as possible to avoid a last-minute crunch on legislative staff. Legislators passed more than 500 bills during the 2020 regular session, which was fewer than the year before. Given many of the hurdles that will likely pop up to getting bills passed, especially later in the session, it’s a good bet that the flow of legislation will slow down from previous sessions.
The session may start earlier this year, too, if voters approve Amendment F, which allows legislators to move the start date from the fourth Monday of January to any day that month. A companion bill passed in 2020 sets next year’s start date as Jan. 17.
There are still several other factors to consider ahead of the January session. What to do with the dozens of reporters who cover the session? How about lobbyists and the public? Legislative staffers say they’re working with the Utah Highway Patrol, which is responsible for security at the Capitol, to come up with solutions.