Utah Capitol will open for 2021 legislative session with mask, social distancing rules
Utahns encouraged to participate online, but may attend in person, legislative leaders announce
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Capitol will be open to the public for the upcoming legislative session, but with mask and social distancing requirements and encouragement that Utahns participate virtually.
House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams on Friday announced the new procedures for the 2021 session beginning Jan. 19, outlining the “significant efforts” Capitol staff have made to safely open the building to the public and lawmakers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those include opening larger committee rooms to allow for social distancing, options for lawmakers and members of the public to participate either in person or online, and new videostreaming — not just audio — for committee meetings.
“Lawmakers make better decisions with public input, which is why we made sure in-person and remote comment options would be available during the 2021 general session,” said Adams, R-Layton. “Maintaining the legislative process during this pandemic by ensuring Utahns have options to provide feedback has been a top priority for the Legislature because input from the public helps us create the best policies for all Utahns.”
Wilson, R-Kaysville, said lawmakers are “excited” to be opening the Capitol again to the public, “but there are some things we are asking the general public to do differently” to ensure everyone’s safety, “and there are not going to be surprises.”
“Mask ambassadors,” Wilson said, will be reminding the public of the mask requirement. If people refuse to wear a mask in the Capitol, “we will have to ask them to leave.”
“We have staff and other members of the public and lawmakers that are all going to be in jeopardy if we don’t have people helping us accomplish what we need to do that way,” Wilson said.
Spaces will be available across Capitol Hill for members of the public and the media to work, and those facilities will be regularly sanitized to reduce risk of COVID-19’s spread, Wilson said. Signs will be placed at workspaces reading “clean” or “not clean.” When an individual or group finishes using the workspace, they will be asked to flip the sign to “not clean” as a signal to cleaning crews.
In committee meeting rooms, where public commenters have in past sessions shown up in large numbers to comment on hot-button issues, there will be limited capacity, Wilson said, so he encouraged public commenters to participate virtually as much as possible. Online streaming will be available on the Legislature’s website, le.utah.gov.
“We have built new committee rooms,” Wilson said, noting lawmakers used those for the first time this week. “Those were designed so we can have more people participate in the legislative process, not just now but in the future.”
But there still will be “capacity constraints,” Wilson said, for social distancing.
Unlike past sessions, Wilson said, the Utah Capitol will not be hosting any events, including school field trips that have typically crowded the halls with hundreds of children.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers will “have a bit more presence” this year, Wilson said, helping to enforce restrictions. They’ll be standing in for the usual House and Senate security personnel — the green and gray coats — who tend to be older. They will not be working during this session due to their higher risk of COVID-19, Wilson said.
Troopers will also be conducting bag checks at each of the four public entrances to the Capitol, according to the Legislature’s procedures. “Bag checks will be noninvasive and are intended to identify items that my be used to disrupt or interfere with official proceedings,” the written procedure states. “UHP will have an active presence and provide security for each committee meeting to help protect the safety of the public, staff and elected officials.”
Asked how protests and rallies will be handled — a common occurrence each year at Capitol Hill when lawmakers are tackling controversial issues — Wilson said people will be permitted to participate in those demonstrations so long as they are wearing masks and social distancing is followed.
“We’re going to make everyone so happy this year, there won’t be any protests,” Wilson joked. He said lawmakers don’t have “any intention of shutting (protests) down unless it becomes unsafe.”
The handshake ban implemented near the end of last year’s session will remain in place, Wilson said. And lawmakers will no longer be using the blue and green paper notes that constituents in years past have used to communicate with them inside House and Senate chambers. Instead, lawmakers’ electronic contact information will be posted outside of each chamber.
As for lawmakers, they’ll be given rapid COVID-19 tests multiple days a week throughout the session if they choose to participate in person, Adams and Wilson said. Funding for those rapid tests is coming from federal dollars, Adams said.
Plexiglass has been installed at each lawmaker’s desk, Wilson said. All lawmakers are being asked to wear masks while in the House and Senate chambers, but will be allowed to take off their masks while speaking.
Asked if lawmakers refuse to wear a mask, Wilson said they’ll be reminded, but ultimately it will be left to lawmakers’ “best judgment.”
Caucus meetings, Wilson said, will be streamed for the first time online — on the occasions they’re open to the public.
Because health care workers and teachers are being prioritized in the first few months of Utah’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Wilson and Adams said they’re not counting on lawmakers having widespread access to the vaccine before the session ends March 5. But because some lawmakers are over the age of 65, some may receive the vaccine.