The Utah Legislature announced Friday how it plans to meet for its general session in January, as the pandemic rages on. And legislative leaders are working to be more accessible to the public than they have been during some of the meetings earlier this year.
The public can attend in person but face masks are mandatory as is social distancing, which will limit the number of available spots, but the “blended” legislative session will also rely heavily on virtual access.
There will be no formal public events in the Capitol building this year. Committee meetings will be streamed and will take place in new, larger rooms. And lawmakers can choose whether to participate virtually or in person, but those who are on the Hill will receive frequent rapid-result coronavirus testing.
“We’ve had to go through a pretty steep learning curve this year in terms of how we can reinvent our procedures and how we can kind of reengineer what we do to do it in a different way,” House Speaker Brad Wilson said during a virtual news conference Friday. “But one of the guiding principles that we’ve had is that we wanted to be sure the public has the ability to engage and give us their feedback.”
Wilson said the Legislature will have “mask ambassadors” to help ensure members of the public follow the rules. Anyone who refuses to wear a face covering will be asked to leave. There will also be an outreach program to help connect people to lawmakers by email and phone.
As part of the changes, the Utah Highway Patrol will have a larger presence on Capitol Hill because the gray and brown coat officials who typically offer security and are “disproportionately older,” Wilson noted. He said the Legislature wanted to be “very sensitive to putting [those] individuals at risk.”
While formal events have been cancelled, legislative leaders acknowledged there’s still the potential for unplanned protests — something Wilson said will be allowed as long as they follow health protocols.
“That’s part of the process is letting people’s voice be heard and we don’t have any intention of shutting that down unless it becomes unsafe for members of the public from a social distancing or mask wearing standpoint,” he said.
People can also protest without limitation outside of the Capitol, noted Senate President Stuart Adams.
Both the House and Senate will be making changes in the chambers, as well. Elected officials will have to test negative for COVID-19 to access the chamber floor. Legislative leaders will also be limiting the number of staff in the rooms and ending the tradition among members of passing blue and green notes around the floor in favor of electronic communication.
The lawmakers, like the public, will decide whether to attend in person or virtually, and Senate President Stuart Adams expects some of his members will take advantage of that option.
“I’ll use someone who’s not here anymore [as an example], but everyone’s aware that Sen. [Ralph] Okerlund had a heart transplant a while ago and our recommendation and strong encouragement was that he not come,” Adams said. “There are people that have individual health considerations or they just don’t feel comfortable. That’s why we’re doing this blended.”
He said he expects most aenators will participate in person, though, adding that he thinks they are “a lot more effective” when they’re together, because “you can have interactions that don’t happen virtually.”
Wilson also said he thinks most lawmakers on the House side will participate in person and noted the House has added plexiglass between desks as a precaution.
Unlike the public, lawmakers will not be required to wear a mask, they’ll instead be encouraged to do so. Wilson and Adams said they didn’t expect any of their members will refuse — though some state lawmakers, like Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, have in the past declared their opposition to face coverings. Wilson, in an effort to “manage expectations,” said he does expects that there will be circumstances where lawmakers aren’t wearing masks.
“There’s probably going to be times where people forget to put a mask on or take it off to eat or drink something and forget to put it back on; I mean, I’ve done that,” he said. “And of course we’ll just remind people to do that. My hope is we don’t have the problem where people refuse.”
Lawmakers will be allowed to remove their masks when speaking, and the decision of whether to wear a mask at their desks on the floor will largely be up to individuals.
Though vaccines began rolling out this week, legislative leaders said lawmakers won’t get special access to inoculations before or during the session, which starts next month and will run through mid-March.
“Looking at the number of vaccines, I think it’s somewhat unlikely we’ll get it before the end of the session, maybe toward the end of it but we’re certainly not anticipating it,” Adams said.
Vaccines will go through the process that has already been established, he noted. They will be offered first to health care workers and then to other groups, including teachers and people in high-risk categories. That could mean some members of the Legislature are likely to be vaccinated before the end of the session, but not all, and none will be able to skip the line.
The session is scheduled to begin Jan. 19.