DES MOINES — Republicans in control of the Iowa Legislature are being asked to move back the planned June 3 restart of the 2020 session due to safety concerns over drawing lawmakers and the public to the Capitol when Polk County continues to be a “coronavirus hotbed” in Iowa.
GOP leaders say they are sticking with their plan for lawmakers to resume their in-person work at the Capitol next Wednesday with the expectation of finishing a fiscal 2021 state budget plan and other essential work the following week.
Legislators — who suspended their session March 16 as part of the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus — and limited staff will operate under new health, safety and social-distancing guidelines designed to accommodate their committee and floor debate work.
Lobbyists and interested Iowans will be able to view the proceedings remotely or in designated areas of the Capitol.
However, Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who chose to stay away from the Statehouse to comply with public-health recommendations when novel coronavirus began to spread in Iowa in March, issued a statement Thursday calling on the Legislature to extend its session pause because Polk County is a “coronavirus hotbed” for confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths.
“The Iowa Legislature is scheduled to reconvene next Wednesday, June 3. I believe that’s a mistake that will put legislators, staff and the public at the Capitol at unnecessary risk for themselves, their families and their communities,” Hogg said in his statement.
“Polk County is a coronavirus hotbed. More than one-third of all confirmed cases (36.4 percent) and deaths (43.4 percent) in Polk County have occurred in last two weeks,” he added.
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“The overall ‘positive’ test rate showing COVID-19 in Polk County since the start of the public health emergency is 17.6 percent (3,847 positives out of 21,828 tests). The ‘positive’ rate since May 17, when daily county test data was made available, is 14.2 percent (925 out of 6,516).
“These test rates are far too high to allow large public gatherings like the Iowa legislative session.”
Hogg advised GOP leaders to extend the suspension of the 2020 legislative session — already done two previous times since mid-March — for at least two more weeks until COVID-19 cases, deaths and test rates in Polk County to go down.
“We have taken an abundance of caution in setting up procedures to put us in the best possible situation. We feel good about the procedures that we’ve put in place,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Thursday.
Under planned safety protocols before entering the Capitol next week, legislative staff and members of the public — but not lawmakers — will be required to go through a health screening consisting of having their temperatures taken and answering a few questions. Once inside the Capitol, personal protective equipment will be encouraged but not mandatory.
There are no plans for remote voting for members who might not feel comfortable being part of a mass gathering in Des Moines.
The Revenue Estimating Conference is to meet Friday to set revised projections for state tax collections through June 30, 2021. Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Legislature will use those estimates for the 2021 fiscal budget.
“We are only as safe as our weakest link,” said Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant. “The Capitol is only as safe as each of us individually choose to make it. It is up to each of us to make it as safe as we can for ourselves, each other and the public.
“I intend to protect myself and others by taking every precaution available. I will be screened or tested daily and distance myself from those who choose otherwise.”
Whitver said he appreciated Hogg’s input, but he added: “We need to get in and finish session so that there’s predictability for our schools, for our colleges, for our community colleges, for entities all over the state that are waiting on us to finalize our budget so that they can finalize their budgets.
“I appreciate his desire to push it back, but there is business that we need to do for the people of Iowa and at some point we have to get back, so I think next week is as good a time any to try to get back and get our work done,” Whitver added.
Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, noted that Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, and Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, made recommendations to the GOP leaders for protecting the health and safety of legislators, staff, media and the public when the Capitol reopened to complete the 2020 session with mixed results.
“Some of those recommendations were adopted. However, some have not, such as requiring all legislators to complete a health screening before entering the Capitol. Everyone else will be required to do so, but not legislators,” said Jochum.
“Safety and public health will depend on everyone wearing at the very least a mask, hopefully, a face shield as well, washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, practicing social distancing, continual cleaning of all surfaces like elevator buttons, handrails, doorknobs, desk tops, microphones, and staying home if anyone is the least bit sick,” Jochum added.
“If some do not heed the recommendations of the public health experts, this session could become the “Petri dish” for more spread of the virus when we return to our home communities. “
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said GOP leaders were trying to take every precaution to make members feel comfortable coming back to the Capitol to finish their 2020 session work.
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“It may not be quite as efficient as what we’re used to,” the House leader said of the revised session protocols, “but I think we are putting ourselves in a position where we can come back and get our work done in a responsible way and that’s what I think is expected of us.”
Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, said he believed lawmakers should wait until August to reconvene when they have a clearer picture of the budget outlook.
Before suspending their 2020 work in mid-March, legislators approved a resolution funding state government operations through August while they monitored how the COVID-19 pandemic was playing out.
“I don’t think leadership is doing nearly enough to make the Capitol safe for legislators and staff. Since the governor announced enough tests are available, it doesn’t make sense to return without testing all those working on the floor,” he said.
Hogg said Thursday he has not decided whether he will return to the Capitol next week, saying he would assess the situation and make a judgment by Wednesday.
“Obviously, it is important to be there if possible so my constituents can have a voice and vote in proceedings,” the Cedar Rapids Democrat said. “On the other hand, if I don’t believe it is safe, I can continue to speak up from outside the Capitol.”
Given Polk County has had the highest number of confirmed cases in Iowa with 3,920 — including 67 new ones Thursday — Hogg said he didn’t think it was safe for those living outside the Des Moines metro area to return to the Capitol building.
“For those of us not from Polk County, legislators and public alike, where will we stay and eat when there is significant community spread?” Hogg asked. “Do we endanger ourselves by serving with legislators from communities that have rapidly growing case numbers when we are not required to be tested or screened? Do we risk bringing it back to our counties where the rates are lower?”
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