Anti-mask Republican senators will lose their right to bare faces next legislative session, under a new set of COVID-19 safety guidelines shared with senators and staff this afternoon.
Anyone entering the Senate next session must wear a face mask and have their temperature checked at the door, and masks must stay on whenever more than one person is in a room. Senate security will enforce the rules for everyone in the building.
Capitol denizens who have long been anxious about how the session will proceed greeted the new rules with cautious optimism, though they won’t know whether or how the rules will be enforced until the new legislative session begins in January.
In an email to senators accompanying a list of new rules, Senate President Karen Fann warned that failing to comply with the rules could result in an early end of the session. She and House Speaker Rusty Bowers already shut down their buildings last month after several newly-elected Republicans showed up maskless to an orientation event after meeting with the coronavirus-infected Rudy Guiliani.
“Finally, I am convinced that adherence to these protocols is necessary to eliminate some of the divisiveness we have encountered throughout this pandemic,” Fann wrote. “Failure to adhere could result in lack of quorums, inability to conduct voting and other work we need to accomplish, or ultimately session shutdown.”
The rules outright bar anyone who is sick or has knowingly been exposed to COVID-19 but doesn’t show symptoms from entering the building until at least 10 days have passed since symptoms appeared or the person last took a positive COVID-19 test. If a senator, employee or visitor was exposed to a COVID-19 patient, he or she must stay away for at least 14 days, with some exceptions.
Susie Myers, the Senate comptroller, will oversee the chamber’s COVID-19 workplace policies and do some internal contact tracing if people in the Senate contract COVID-19. If testing becomes more readily available, the Senate will “highly encourage” staff and lawmakers to be tested for COVID-19 at least once a week and provide free tests on site.
Members of the public will only be allowed in to participate in committee hearings or attend scheduled meetings with lawmakers, and they won’t be allowed to remain in the building after their meeting ends. In previous years, the Senate has been wide open and the House open to anyone willing to walk through a metal detector.
The biggest change to current procedure, however, is a mask mandate that will apply to senators as well as employees and visitors. Over the past several months, a group of GOP lawmakers have openly disregarded public health guidance and municipal mask mandates, refusing to cover their faces even as they require the people who work for them to do so.
Nearly a full page of the six-page COVID-19 rules document is dedicated to the mask policy, which dictates that every single person must wear a mask in the building, unless they are alone in an office. The instant someone else enters a room, everyone must put their own mask on.
Anyone who is medically unable to wear a mask must wear a face shield, and should work remotely, the rules continue. They also dictate that plexiglass barriers, as installed on the House floor earlier this year, are not a substitute for a mask.