WELLNESS & SAFETY COVID-19 precautions being taken at the Capitol for 2021 Legislative Session

rkansas Code calls for the Arkansas Legislature to convene on the “second Monday of January of each odd numbered year.” In a normal year there would be large meetings, small meetings, hearings, and testimonies at the Capitol and the Big Mac Building. However, there is nothing normal about the times we are living in right now. So, with COVID-19 what will the 2021 session look like? How can we have the session safely for the senators, representatives, staff, lobbyists, county and municipal officials, and the public? For some perspective, let’s look at a couple of other states that have already had their legislative sessions. California’s session was interrupted by the pandemic. Tey started on Jan. 6 and suspended the session on March 16. Tey resumed the session on July 27 and adjourned on August 31. When they reconvened, guidelines were established. Everyone had to wear masks, the number of visitors to the Assembly and Senate floors were limited to provide more social- distancing space among members, and plexiglass dividers were installed in both chambers. But, even though the ground rules were created, according to US News, “as the end-of-session frenzy gripped them in late August, pandemic no-nos spiked: Lawmakers huddled closely, let their masks slip below their noses, smooshed together for photos and shouted “Aye!” and “No!” when voting in the Senate, potentially spraying virus-laden particles at their colleagues.” In Tennessee, in March, the Legislature implemented


COVID-19 protocols and procedures according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Tennessee Department of Health. Tese included closing the Capitol campus to the public, with limited exceptions; temperature checks for employees and guests entering the building; masks required in common areas; and plastic glass dividers in committee rooms and chamber floors. Signs encouraging social distancing are posted throughout the Capitol campus and surfaces frequently are sanitized. However, there were still some rough spots along the road. Democratic Caucus Chairman Raumesh Akbari thought additional measures should be taken. “Our staff members and visitors are required to wear masks in common areas, and they’re temperature checked, so I think that it would be hypocritical and counterproductive for members not to


have to wear a mask as well,” Akbari said. “We don’t want our special session to be a super-spreader event.” Tis fall, 14 Arkansas state legislators tested positive for COVID-19. With that in mind, let’s look at what the Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR), as well as House and Senate committees, are planning to keep all involved in the session as safe as possible. Here are some of the COVID-safe measures being taken:

Becky Comet AAC Member Benefits Manager

A legislative panel authorized the Bureau of Legislative Research to spend more than $170,000 to make a conference room on the fourth floor of the Multi-Agency Complex -- immediately west of the state Capitol — suitable for a House committee to use in next year’s regular session.

• Te panel also authorized the bureau to spend nearly $400,000 to upgrade the bureau’s audio and visual systems for two rooms on the fifth floor of the Multi-Agency Complex.

• House leaders are looking at using committee Rooms A and B on the fifth floor of the complex and a conference room on the fourth floor, which some officials call Room C, of that building, as well as Room 151 in the Capitol as much as possible for committee meetings in the regular session to allow for social distancing.

• According to Marty Garrity, director of BLR, the fourth-floor conference room needs to be outfitted with video streaming equipment, a video production system, microphones, projectors and speakers in order to provide for transparency to the public.

• Rep. Jeff Wardlaw would like to limit the elevators to only lawmakers or staff members between the fourth and fifth floors, and for the conference room entrance for the public and lobbyists to be on the fourth floor, “so they walk straight in.”

• Te Bureau of Legislative Research plans to have plastic-glass partitions installed in Room A in advance of the regular session and will require social distancing in that room.


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