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Senate implements COVID-19 protocols

Anyone wishing to enter the Senate Chamber, gallery or attend a committee meeting – including members – must first test negative for COVID-19 under rules adopted by the Senate. Travis County reported a record number of COVID cases on Wednesday and with hospital capacity approaching limits, the pandemic has never been worse in Austin.  Balancing the public’s right to access the Capitol building with the health risks presented to members, staff, and visitors, has been a widely debated topic in the weeks leading up to session.  For the next 60 days at least, the Senate has chosen to implement strict testing protocols to avoid an outbreak at the Capitol during the peak of the COVID outbreak in Austin.  The body could consider modifications to the rules in early March.

The rigorous testing program requires senators and staff with access to the Senate floor, where the 31 members transact business, to test negative for COVID-19 each day before entering.  Staff without floor access must be tested twice weekly.  Though not mandatory to enter the building itself, the state does have a free testing tent for members of the public. Those who test negative will be given a wristband, allowing them to enter the Senate gallery or attend committee hearings.  Wristbands will also be provided to anyone showing proof of vaccination.  Individual members can decide whether to require a wristband to enter their Capitol office.

Though these regulations only apply to spaces under the jurisdiction of the Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick told members that he believes similar standards should be applied to the whole Capitol.   Testing was mandatory to enter the building on opening day, and Patrick said it proceeded smoothly. “We had over 800 people tested and only one objected,” he said.  “The people know, if we want to have session, if we want to protect lives and life, if we want to conduct the peoples’ business with the least restrictions, then testing is the answer.”  He thanked members for their unanimous support.

Testing is only one mitigation measure required in the Senate.  Senators and staff must wear masks on the floor or in committee, though Senators will not be required to wear them if seated alone at their desk. Senators will be limited to a single staff member on the floor at any time unless an exception is granted by the chair of the Administration Committee.  Any person testing positive for the virus will not be allowed back onto the Capitol complex for ten days.

Full committee action likely won’t begin until after the first 60 days, but one committee is getting to work quickly: the Senate Redistricting Committee.  Every ten years, following the census, the Legislature must look at how population changed and redraw state House and Senate as well as congressional districts.  This year the census data is running behind, and the final numbers may not be available until late in the session, or even after it ends.  Despite the delay, committee Chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman will begin holding hearings to get local input on how these lines should be drawn.  Normally these meetings are done on the road, but the pandemic prevented that over the interim.

Instead, said Huffman, the committee will begin these hearings on the last Monday in January from the Senate Chamber, completely virtually.   Members of the committee will sit at their own desks – spaced widely in the Chamber – while hearing regional testimony via video conference.  She encouraged members of the public to participate from wherever they live.  “We intend to hear from every person who signs up and goes through the process,” said Huffman.  Huffman emphasized that these rules were for this committee alone and not intended to serve as a model or precedent for how other committees are run.  Those rules will be decided later in the session.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, January 26 at 3 p.m.