By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press
OLYMPIA — When the Washington state Legislature convenes in January, the Capitol building will remain closed to the public and lobbyists due to the pandemic, and lawmakers will do their work through a mix of virtual meetings and on-site votes.
The Senate Facilities and Operations Committee met Thursday to discuss the protocols for the 105-day session that begins Jan. 11, including a remote option via Zoom for the public to join committee hearings.
“Obviously this is going to be a challenging session,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said at the meeting. “The pandemic has affected every part of our lives and the Legislature is certainly impacted greatly as well.”
The state House has not yet made a final decision on how to approach its session, but Democratic Speaker Laurie Jinkins told reporters that members are leaning toward doing their work completely remotely, with one lawmaker presiding from the chamber and limited staff on campus.
“The guiding principles that I think we’ve been operating under are that we have to be able to do the people’s work, it has to be able to be done in an accountable and a transparent way and people have to be kept safe,” Jinkins said. “Those are the things we are trying to balance.”
Under the plan approved by the Senate committee along party lines, new senators will be sworn in individually, and at least 25 members must be in the chamber in person on the first day of the session to vote on changes to Senate rules. Votes will occur in shifts to ensure adequate social distancing. Republican members voted against the plan, saying they had concerns about public access.
Regular floor votes will be conducted in a hybrid format, with a mix of senators present in the chamber and others participating remotely. Before the session starts, the Facilities and Operations Committee will make a decision on how many senators and staff are allowed on the floor, rostrum and in the wings, and may adjust that number during if necessary.
Any person working on the Capitol campus during the session will be required to wear a mask in all legislative facilities, unless they are alone in their office, and will have to maintain social distancing of at least six feet. Senate employees will continue to telework as much as possible, though some staff may work on site on a limited basis to manage committee hearings and other tasks.
Credentialed members of the Capitol press corps will be allowed to observe floor votes from the Senate gallery, though no more than six members of the media may be present in the gallery at a time.
As of this week, there have been more than 111,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington since the pandemic began, and 2,416 people have died.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, although long-term effects are unknown. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.