CORONAVIRUS

Iowa legislative leaders not anticipating major coronavirus-related changes at Capitol

Legislators are scheduled to return to the Iowa State Capitol on Jan. 11 in Des Moines. (Steve Pope/Freelance)
Legislators are scheduled to return to the Iowa State Capitol on Jan. 11 in Des Moines. (Steve Pope/Freelance)
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South Dakota, which has the second highest rate of COVID-19 cases, is spending about $350,000 to wire its state legislative chamber and renovate meeting rooms at the Capitol to make remote work easier for lawmakers.

The Virginia House of Delegates plans to meet remotely to limit lawmakers’ exposure to the coronavirus and, according to leaders, set an example of how to conduct business during a pandemic.

The Maine Legislature will swear in new lawmakers at a convention center where they will have more room than at the Capitol. New lawmakers in New Hampshire will bundle up and be sworn in outdoors.

In Iowa, which has the third highest level of positive COVID-19 cases in the nation — 7,525 per 100,000 residents — legislative leaders are considering several steps to limit COVID-19 risk during what is scheduled to be a 110-day session, but none as sweeping as what other states are planning.

“Our expectation at this point is to start the session on time,” on Jan. 11, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said Thursday.

Among the changes being considered are steps to reduce “density.” That could involve moving clerks out of the House and Senate chambers to give lawmakers nearly 6 feet between their desks. In that case, clerks might work from home.

The 2020 session was suspended in March because of COVID-19 and lawmakers returned to the Capitol for two weeks in June to finish their work. Lawmakers may have the same protocols in 2021 as they did in June.

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That could include not having some committee meetings to avoid crowding lawmakers, lobbyists, news media and other members of the public into smaller committee rooms.

Subcommittees might meet virtually, one legislative staffer said.

If a committee meeting doesn’t need to take place, Grassley said, “there’s not going to be an effort to meet just so folks can all get in the room.”

Other discussion points involve limiting nonlegislative meetings at the Capitol, Grassley said. There are, for example, prayer and Bible study groups that meet at the Statehouse.

He indicated the Legislature may want to coordinate visits by lobbying groups “so we don’t have those days on the Hill where you have hundreds and hundreds of people coming in.”

At the same time. Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, emphasized the legislative process must remain open to the public.

“We want it to be extremely transparent for the people of Iowa to participate and view the proceedings,” Whitver said.

Leaders and Statehouse staff are looking at contingencies “because we don’t know exactly what the state of COVID-19 will be when we come back.”

Across the nation, at least 162 state legislators out of about 6,000 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Associated Press, which also reported three deaths. One Iowa state senator has recovered from COVID-19 after testing positive this fall.

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Senate Minority Leader-select Zach Wahls of Coralville and House Minority Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City have been fielding questions from their caucuses as well as members of the public about COVID-19 protocols during the session.

“My team and I will be sending over some of our suggestions about what we feel would help our members and staff feel secure at the Capitol,” Wahls said during a virtual meeting of the Legislative Council.

He agreed it will be important “that we have an open and transparent process for the people, that we are protecting their rights to participate in the democratic process in a way that’s safe and secure.”

The Legislature should be taking the same precautions as everybody else, Prichard said in an earlier interview.

“You know, like everybody else, we’re going to have to be careful, we’re going to have to practice social distancing,” the Charles City attorney said.

During the session, hundreds of people work in the Capitol and there’s a lot of foot traffic, “so we just want to make sure that we’re not turning the Capitol into an exchange for the virus and adding to the problem.”

There was no talk Thursday of requiring verification of vaccines or mandating masks for anyone entering the Capitol or daily, rapid COVID-19 testing for lawmakers and staffers. Legislative staffers pointed out that no one has authority to prevent an Iowa legislator from entering the Capitol.

There may be some physical changes at the Capitol, they said, but it’s not clear whether that would include installing Plexiglas shields between legislators’ desks, for example.

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Protocols put in place for the June session such as hand sanitizer stations and regular “fogging” of the Capitol to kill the coronavirus are likely to continue in January.

Whitver indicated more changes are possible, depending on COVID-19 numbers.

“We want to start on time,” he said, adding, “We’ll continue to work on any changes that need to be made to accommodate any COVID changes or any COVID spikes that we’re seeing.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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