Colorado’s Capitol May Reopen Without Many Of The Coronavirus Precautions Common Elsewhere

May 12, 2020
State Capitol PreviewState Capitol PreviewHart Van Denburg/CPR News
In normal times, lawmakers sit almost elbow-to-elbow in Colorado's House Chambers. Some lawmakers want to use the public galleries to allow for more social distancing.

Under statewide health orders, companies are only supposed to allow half of their employees into the office at a time, with strict social distancing. In Denver, masks are required for anyone who enters a retail or commercial business

When the state legislature resumes its work later this month, it’s not likely to have either of those requirements.

Colorado lawmakers continue to grapple with how best to finish the legislative session, which was halted in March due to COVID-19. State lawmakers still need to pass a balanced budget, which will require eliminating a more than $3 billion budget shortfall. But Republicans and Democrats disagree on which safety procedures should be in place, from masks, to remote work, to social distancing.

A bipartisan group of six lawmakers spent the past few weeks developing a tentative safety plan. One idea is to close sections of the Capitol building but still allow the public inside, while maintaining social distancing. 

“Everyone entering the building will undergo a health screening including a temperature check,” states a draft of the recommendations. Members of the public with a temperature of 100.4 or higher would be given instructions to participate remotely but would not be banned from entering the Capitol if they insisted on it. Masks would not be mandated for lawmakers, or the public.

Democratic House Majority Leader Alec Garnett said the Colorado State Patrol does not feel it can enforce a mask requirement or force sick people to leave the Capitol. 

“There really isn't a legal basis to kick somebody out or remove somebody from the Capitol, the public building, for showing symptoms,” Garnett said. “And so the idea in terms of keeping everybody safe and really putting public health at the forefront, was to provide some information, and to strongly encourage folks to not come into the building and to participate in the process remotely.” 

Private businesses are allowed to require customers to wear masks, and Denver’s City Council requires them for anyone attending its public meetings, which resumed on Monday. Democrats hold the majority in both the House and Senate, and Garnett was one of the legislative leaders who reviewed the recommended guidelines at an Executive Committee meeting Monday.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert said he agreed with keeping things like masks optional, and said it may be more effective than forcing the public to adopt a strict mandate. “We know from experience that using words like ‘mandate’ or ‘required,’ sometimes don’t necessarily work,” he said. 

Partisan divides developing

Some Democratic lawmakers, in particular, have raised concerns that the proposed procedures are too lenient, and would like to give lawmakers more flexibility to work from home. “I am in a high risk category, because of my age” said Democratic Rep. Janet Buckner of Aurora. She said she’s also immunocompromised. While Buckner wants to represent her district during the session, she said she doesn’t feel safe returning to the capitol on May 26.

“I have a friend whose husband died from the coronavirus. She lives in another state but we’re good friends and she’s devastated. I know what it’s like to grieve. It’s devastating.”

Buckner is approaching the five year anniversary of her own husband’s death. Former lawmaker John Buckner died from a respiratory illness while serving in office. 

Democrats largely back allowing certain lawmakers to join the legislative session from home, and some even support figuring out a way to conduct the entire session away from the Capitol. Republicans question whether it’s constitutional to allow for remote votes and warn it could limit transparency and public participation in the legislative process.  

“I have yet to find a single member of my caucus that is supportive of the idea of a remote meeting,” said Republican Rep. Tim Geitner from El Paso county who worked with colleagues to discuss the possibility of remote work. 

Geitner said Republicans were willing to support some measures that would allow for more social distancing during floor votes. “There was talk about using the balcony for such things. Maybe even leaving the machine [for voting] open a little bit longer and whether that's voting in shifts or something like that.” 

Some of those ideas made it into the safety recommendations, but others still think those procedures fall short.

“If we are at the same time not willing to require masks of people in the building or we're not willing to tell someone that they have to leave because they are actually sick, I don't think we can also say members are not allowed to do any level of participation whatsoever unless they're in the building. Something has to give,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg. “And if we do nothing, that severely limits participation for a whole lot of people.”

Masks, social distancing remain unresolved

The lawmakers on the budget committee who have been coming to work during the legislative adjournment have shown how hard it may be to get the 100-member General Assembly to agree on one approach to safety measures.

Two Republican lawmakers showed up at different points to watch budget committee proceedings in person last week without wearing masks, and Republican budget committee member Rep. Kim Ransom generally takes hers off when she is seated during deliberations. The other five budget committee members and staff have been wearing masks.

Another unresolved issue is how to maintain a safe social distance. Lawmakers’ desks are situated right next to each other. One proposal to space people out further in the House, which has 65 members, was to require some legislators to sit in the public viewing gallery directly above the chamber. However, the top Republican in the House pushed back against that plan.

“Deciding who gets to go up in the gallery, who gets to be on the floor, I think it would be quite problematic,” said Republican House Minority Leader Patrick Neville. “I think since 1905, we've been sitting in those desks, legislating from those desks. And I think most people kind of view their desk as an extension of their own district, and to tell folks that they can't sit in their desk, might become an issue.” 

Neville has been vocal in his opposition to many of the state’s public health restrictions around the new coronavirus. In April, he attended a ReOpen Colorado rally at the state Capitol and on Mother’s Day, he joined the crowds at a Castle Rock restaurant that opened for dining service in defiance of local rules

Legislative leaders expect to meet next week to try to agree on a plan for re-starting. Some rule and procedure changes may require two thirds of the legislature to sign off on once they’ve returned.

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