The Utah Capitol is usually a scene of huddled groups having intense conversations, crowded hallways and throngs of lobbyists waiting outside chamber doors during the legislative session.
Those hallmarks of the annual gathering now feel taboo as the airborne coronavirus continues to spread. Still, Utah leaders are trying to pull off a largely in-person session through a combination of extensive rapid testing, social distancing and mask-wearing. They’ve also built a contingency plan into the budget that would enable them to end the session early — just in case infections begin spreading under the Capitol dome.
Senate President Stuart Adams doesn’t think it will come to that.
“My anticipation is that we’ll probably be here all 45 days,” he said. “But you never know.”
Some lawmakers, though, aren’t so comfortable. They’re concerned that some might refuse to wear masks during floor debates and aren’t convinced they can rely on rapid tests to prevent the disease from running rampant in the 104-member Legislature.
“The uncertainty of it all is very troubling,” said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss. “What if suddenly a whole bunch of people get COVID? Are we continuing? Are we going to have committee meetings where the public can come and testify?”
The Holladay Democrat says she and her husband both received negative rapid test results recently, even though they were actually infected with COVID-19. Moss’ husband came back positive that same day after taking the more accurate PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, while she got her positive PCR result the next day.
The experience left her questioning the accuracy of rapid tests and whether requiring lawmakers and legislative staff to take them twice each week will protect them from outbreaks.
State health officials reassured her in an email that rapid tests are effective when used frequently, as they will be during the session. But Moss said she still might feel uneasy heading to the Capitol if she hadn’t already contracted and recovered from the disease.
Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, who’s working on a doctorate in public health, shares Moss’ concerns.
“With 100 people who all go home and spend maybe some time out in the community, whether it’s grocery shopping or going to the mall … the chances that someone will contract the virus and spread it before they test positive for it are very high,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said. “And being too cavalier about things like wearing masks is going to exacerbate that risk a lot.”
Rep. Ray Ward, a Bountiful physician, argues rapid testing will be a useful tool in combination with other precautions, such as mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitizing.
“There will surely be COVID in the Capitol over the course of the session with how high the transmission rates are,” he said, adding that the multiple precautions represent a good-faith effort to account for this reality.
State representatives and staff will be required to wear masks, although House chief of staff Abby Osborne said lawmakers will be permitted to remove their face coverings while addressing the legislative body or a committee. And both chambers are nominating “mask ambassadors” who will give lawmakers “friendly reminders” to wear face coverings, according to the Legislature’s COVID-19 protocols.
For the time being, the state complex will remain closed to the public to address safety concerns after the recent Washington, D.C., insurrection and reports of armed protests around the nation.
Inside the Utah House chamber, plexiglass dividers will separate members for an added layer of protection. The Senate decided against the barriers because they were cumbersome, difficult to fasten to lawmakers’ roll-top desks and wouldn’t stop airborne particles from circulating in the chamber.
Sen. Jani Iwamoto said legislative leaders are “trying to make it as safe as possible for everyone” but does wish face coverings were mandatory for lawmakers rather than strongly suggested.
“I’m not there to tell everybody how to do it,” Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said. “But I do feel masks are critical when we’re in an enclosed environment, and especially 45 days straight.”
Adams said he expects his members to “wear a mask where possible,” although he believes the rapid testing plan will free them up to take off their face coverings while speaking into the microphone. So far, he added, the chamber hasn’t had a problem with anyone refusing to cover their faces.
“It’s just commonplace,” Adams, R-Layton, said. “Just common sense.”
But even lawmakers who are worried about mask compliance and rapid testing agree that a fully virtual legislative session would be far from ideal.
Though legislators will have the option of participating online, Moss said remote attendance can make it difficult to hear public testimony or understand colleagues who are speaking on the House floor. And she doesn’t think she’d be nearly as effective in presenting her bills to a committee if she had to do it virtually.
Ward said remote hearings are more “stilted and limiting” than physical meetings, where he can easily pull a colleague aside to work out a compromise or flag down a witness to ask follow-up questions.
His clinic’s staff has faced exposure to COVID-19 as they’ve worked through the pandemic, but that’s a necessary risk if they’re going to do their jobs, he said, and they’ve managed to avoid infection so far by wearing masks and taking other precautions. Ward says he has a similar perspective when thinking about the Legislature’s work.
“We must be here,” Ward, a Republican, said. “And so, inside of the fact that we are going to be here … we’re going to do everything else we can do to make it safe.”
State lawmakers have even done a significant amount of budgeting work before the start of session, so that if an outbreak does force them to adjourn early, Utah is on solid financial footing.
Dailey-Provost thinks legislators should convene this month in an abbreviated session to pass the budget and then postpone the rest of their legislating until later this year, when the ongoing vaccination effort has brought infection levels down in Utah. Though legislative leaders didn’t believe this was the right approach, she hopes everyone can agree that strict adherence to safety protocols will be critical.
“Now that we’re sort of moving toward the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, “we really have to stay vigilant.”