Legislative Safety

Plexiglas barriers hang in offices at the Idaho State Capitol to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.

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BOISE — How can Idaho safely hold a special legislative session in the middle of a pandemic, when many of its 105 elected lawmakers are older or have health conditions putting them at risk of death if they contract the coronavirus?

It’s a question legislative leaders and staffers have been working on ever since Gov. Brad Little announced Aug. 5 that he’d call a special session to start on Aug. 24.

“We’re looking at a number of things, and they’re not all worked out yet,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “We have a much easier job than the House.”

The Senate has 35 members, while the House has twice as many at 70, but the chambers are the same size. The Senate is planning on moving in additional desks to ensure social distancing, and is also considering ordering Plexiglas shields to go around some of the senators’ desks; a prototype arrived in the Senate chamber this week.

“They go high enough in the front so that even if you’re standing to speak, they would cover in the front,” Hill said.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said in the House, “The sheer logistics are, they’re twice as difficult. And our square footage is the same. So what we end up doing may not look like what the Senate does.”

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, asked Bedke if he’d mandate face masks for House members, but he said no.

“Mandates don’t necessarily work,” Bedke said. “But I do think that I’m going to ask for cooperation and I’m going to ask for consideration of our members that have health concerns.”

Several legislative working groups have been briefed on possible House and Senate rule changes, to allow such safety measures as:

  • Remote voting from locations within the Capitol but outside the chambers.
  • Remote testimony from the public.
  • Dividing the House into two groups, half of whom would be on the floor, and the other half in a large downstairs hearing room, linked electronically, to allow social distancing during House sessions.

None of those rule changes have been enacted, and they originally were discussed as proposals for the December organizational session that precedes the January regular session of the Legislature. But Hill said, “You can make rule changes in any session, including a special session, and that’s what we’re planning on doing. We’ll do that right at the beginning of the special session.”

Rule changes require two-thirds support in each house, he noted, adding, “I don’t think anybody’s objecting to any of those things.”

The state Capitol is in the city of Boise and within Ada County, both of which have mandatory mask orders in place due to community spread of COVID-19.

Rubel, an attorney, said local ordinances apparently can’t be enforced inside the state Capitol; she’s requested an opinion from the Idaho attorney general on that.

“I think it’s its own little legal universe,” she said.

“I absolutely think it should be required,” she said. “As a basic matter, it’s an Americans with Disabilities Act question if nothing else. I have numerous members of my caucus who are severely compromised from a health perspective. It’s creating a terrible dilemma for them. … You have to do your job. We know there will be people who won’t wear masks in there.”

Hill said, “We will certainly be wearing masks. In my opinion, we’ll be wearing masks walking around the Capitol and so forth. Once we get into our seats and we are social-distanced, I just don’t know. At least in the Senate, I haven’t heard of any resistance to doing what we need to do to comply.”

Bedke said, “We are very aware that we have members with health concerns, and we also want to be good citizens in the city of Boise as well as Ada County.”

“I think that there’ll be some Plexiglas shields there, probably in front of the chief clerk and the journal clerks,” the speaker said. “But I don’t anticipate one around every desk at this point.”

“We have provisions, if members are uncomfortable with this, we have a no-questions-asked policy on replacements,” Bedke said. Idaho is the only state that allows elected lawmakers to appoint a substitute from their legislative district to fill in for them as an acting lawmaker; it happens frequently, when lawmakers have business obligations or are ill.

Rubel said, “Just send in the substitute — that’s a terrible solution. First of all, you’re endangering the substitute, and secondly, we want to be able to represent our people ourselves, and we don’t think we should be precluded from doing that because of health issues, when it’s so easily accommodated.”

“Asking people to wear a mask for a few days in the Legislature is a trivial accommodation,” Rubel said. “It’s a nice, air-conditioned place. I think it would be nice not to defy the laws of the jurisdictions surrounding the Capitol.”

Rubel called the Plexiglas shields “a very intriguing solution,” saying, “I tend to defer to experts on this. … Maybe that would do the trick.”

Using federal CARES Act funds allocated to the Legislature for COVID-19 related expenses, the Legislative Services Office already has contracted with a local Boise vendor, Advanced Sign, to have Plexiglas shields installed in five Legislative Services Office locations, including the legislative research library and proofreader offices where two proofreaders otherwise are working face to face at desks that face each other. So far, the Legislature has spent $1,360 on the shields.

Plans are in the works to install shields at the presiding officer’s desk in the Senate chamber, and at the Secretary of the Senate’s desk, with small, strategically placed cutouts allowing official bill documents to be passed back and forth.

For shields around desks in the Senate chambers, each has to be custom-designed, as all the desks are slightly different sizes and shapes to fit in the historic chambers. The prototype rises 40 inches above the front of the desk to protect a standing senator who rises to speak.

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, was one of the first to see the prototype in the chamber this week.

“We’re going to have to do something,” Bair, 62, said, “I guess personally, I don’t care whether people wear masks or not. I’ll do it, in order to help protect other people.”

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said social distancing in the House is “pretty hard to do because we’re already packed in there.”

He wondered whether some of the lawmakers could sit in the VIP gallery that’s above the House members’ seats.

Clow, 72, said, “It’s still unexplored territory as to how we’re going to deal with COVID and face masks. … I’m not too worried about my own health.”

“I wear a mask quite often in public to make sure that the people around me feel comfortable, more so than me,” he said. “But I would not stay away. If I’m required to be there, I will be there. If there’s no masks required, that’s not going to keep me away.”

Bedke said, “We’ll carry out our business as expeditiously as we can, while being as safe and responsible toward one another as we can.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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