WA Senate considers plan that includes COVID-19 testing

Washington’s Pandemic Session: Remote Work, Weighty Topics
Ted S. Warren

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2021 file photo, Washington Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, works at her desk on the otherwise empty Senate floor, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., during a joint session of the Washington Legislature being held remotely. The 2021 session of the Washington Legislature ended Sunday, April 25 and lawmakers had no shortage of weighty topics to consider while having to conduct their work amid a pandemic that meant most meetings and votes were conducted remotely. The Capitol building was also closed to the public since last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was surrounded by security fencing and national guard members at times due to fears of protests.

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Under a plan being considered by the Washington Senate, lawmakers in that chamber would conduct their work through a mix of virtual committee meetings and on-site votes, and senators and staff would have to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or submit to regular testing to be on campus when the session starts in January.

For days when lawmakers are on the chamber floor to vote, daily testing for all senators and staff — regardless of vaccination status — would be required, under the proposal being considered by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee.

The Democratic-majority committee met Friday to discuss the COVID-19 protocols for the 60-day session that begins Jan. 10. Unlike last year, when a limited number of lawmakers were allowed in the Senate chamber during floor votes, under the plan discussed by the committee, all 49 senators could attend floor sessions and the two galleries above the floor would once again be open to the public, with a limit of up to 12 people on each side. Masking and public distancing would be required.

A vote on the plan was expected Friday evening after Republicans on the committee had a chance to present it to their caucus.

Under the plan, Senate committee hearings would remain remote, with public participation. As before the pandemic, hearings and floor votes will continue to be broadcast or live streamed by TVW, the state’s government affairs channel.

The House hasn’t finalized plans for what that chamber will look like, but with double the number of lawmakers compared to the Senate, leaders this week said there is likely to be a hybrid situation of in-person and remote floor votes.

It’s also not yet been decided whether the House will extend into session an interim a rule that took effect in October that requires House members and staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to access House facilities.

While the Capitol was closed to the public during the last legislative session, it has been open since July 1 with a requirement for visitors to wear masks while indoors.

Lawmakers are encouraged to hold meetings remotely, but under the proposal, in-office meetings would be capped at three people per meeting. Members of the public who meet with senators at their office would not be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative test but will be asked COVID screening questions by Senate security.

Under the proposal in the Senate, the chamber estimated it would need to spend $100,000 a month to hire private security to assist Senate security with the flow of public in the Senate office buildings and in and out of the galleries at the Capitol.

Remote work will continue to be encouraged or required for many staffers, including session aids and interns.