Colorado lawmakers have begun discussing in earnest whether to temporarily shut down the state legislature to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.
The debate comes as the outbreak increasingly disrupts activity at the Capitol and as Gov. Jared Polis is warning that the spread of the virus has no end in sight.
Colorado’s largest teachers union canceled a rally at the Capitol planned for next week in response to the virus, known at COVID-19. A top Democratic leader urged tourists and school groups to rethink their visits to the statehouse. A public announcement of an environmental bill set for Wednesday was called off. And signs ask visitors to consider emailing state senators instead of passing them notes in the chambers, as is tradition.
A false rumor even circulated in the Capitol on Wednesday that a state lawmaker was at home awaiting COVID-19 test results. She has bronchitis.
“I’m not a health expert,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican. “But if large groups of people congregating in a confined area increases the chance of spreading it, it kind of seems like something we ought to avoid.”
Colorado isn’t the only state having these conversations. State lawmakers in Washington, where the COVID-19 outbreak is most intense — are preparing to quickly shutter their Capitol if needed. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a temporary shutdown of lawmaking in that state Wednesday. And Texas lawmakers canceled several committee meetings scheduled this week.
Other public gathering places in Colorado are shutting down. On Wednesday the NBA suspended the rest of its season. Colorado College, the University of Colorado system, and Metropolitan State University of Denver all announced this week that classes will be conducted online as soon as Monday.
The top six legislative leaders on the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council met earlier this week to discuss whether to halt the session and how to respond to the virus’ outbreak of the virus. The hearing came after Polis declared a state of emergency on Tuesday.
The discussions continued Wednesday in an emergency preparedness committee tasked with making recommendations to leadership about how to respond. In both meetings, lawmakers expressed concern about how to keep the legislative process, such as committee meetings and votes in the chambers, open to the public.
“At what point should we consider that the Capitol is going to be uninhabitable?” Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat who leads the panel, asked top Polis administration advisers on the virus. “What’s your opinion about that tipping point where we should consider the Capitol to be closed?”
Scott Bookman, who leads the state’s health lab and is serving as incident commander for the outbreak, said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is still evaluating the situation
Bookman said COVID-19 is transmitted by droplets and not circulated in the air. He said there is a low risk of contracting the disease if simply passing someone who is infected. To contract the virus, he said people would need to be within six feet of someone who is actively ill for 10 minutes.
“If we had somebody who was positive asymptomatic and was in close contact with anyone who worked here regularly, then we would have to have some serious conversations about what were the next steps,” he said.
The lawmaking process is a close-contact activity, and the Capitol is frequently packed with lawmakers, staff, lobbyists, school children and visitors from across the state and country.
It’s not infrequent that people who work in the close confines of the Capitol get sick. There’s even a nickname — “Capitol crud” — for the regular nastiness that circulates the building the annual 120-day lawmaking term.
“If anybody knows what the lobby looks like, there’s pretty close contact there,” Titone said during the hearing. “The lobby is not just full of lobbyists. There are community members that come to lobby legislators. We have a continuous flow of people going through that tight area where there’s often a lot of bumping into each other.”
Lawmaker postpones public meeting, but not out of fear
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg decided to cancel his scheduled news conference on Wednesday — where he was supposed to unveil an air quality bill — because he wanted to be sensitive to the situation.
“Less than 24 hours after a state of emergency has been declared, it probably makes sense to delay or hold off for now on the press conference,” he said. “I don’t want to get up there and give a speech about something that might not seem as urgent as it did two days ago.”
Fenberg said he would encourage tourists and school groups with plans to visit the legislature “for things that are not timely” to think about rescheduling. Busloads of people visiting the Capitol, he suggested, may not be the best thing right now.
However, he added, “by no way am I saying that folks shouldn’t come down and engage in the political process.”
Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat, worries that even if people are allowed to come to the Capitol, coronavirus fears will keep people from coming to testify on bills.
“If people are feeling like they cannot participate in our process and it’s getting to the point where we’re losing that public interaction, we should take very serious steps either to address people’s concerns and tell them they can come here,” Singer said. “Or if we can’t allay people’s concerns, then we need to reconsider what the right thing is not just for people’s health, but for a healthy democracy.”
Rep. Larry Liston, a Colorado Springs Republican who has spent a dozen years in the legislature, disagrees. “I don’t think we should adjourn,” he said. “Personally, I think it’s being over-hyped. If we follow good, normal sanitary practices I think we will be fine.”
At the same time, however, Liston said that he recommended weeks ago to legislative leadership that tour groups be barred from the Capitol as a precaution.
Fenberg is among the six lawmakers who will decide whether to keep the Capitol open. Along with Holbert, he is joined by House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican.
“I think that whatever we do should be because the public health experts recommend us to take that action,” Fenberg said. “Does that mean I think we’ll close down or not close down? I don’t know yet.”
On Wednesday, as Polis asked reporters to remind the public to keep their distance from each other and use good hygiene, the governor declined to weigh in on the question of whether the legislature should close its doors.
“That’s entirely up to the legislature,” Polis said.
What happens if the legislature shuts down
The conversation about whether the legislature should shut down — which has filtered through the Capitol hallways for days — has switched from a question of if to when.
Because of Polis’ emergency declaration, the General Assembly has some, albeit limited, options. Rules governing emergency situations dictate that the legislature could take a long recess and pick back up again, without cutting into its constitutionally limited 120-day session. Any pending legislation would be frozen in whatever stage of the lawmaking process and continue when the session resumed.
The problem, however, is that the virus is expected to spread more as time goes on and there is no short-term end to the crisis in sight. Polis even told reporters on Wednesday that “this will get worse before it gets better” and couldn’t say how long the outbreak may wreak havoc.
One question raised is whether Colorado could conduct remote lawmaking. But the logistics appear difficult because of equipment limitations and legislative rules — including ones necessitating that each vote be verified.
“Doable? Yes,” said Manish Jani, deputy director of Colorado’s Legislative Council Staff. “Practical? Not so much.”
On Wednesday, Sen Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, also questioned the constitutionality of pausing the legislative session only to take it back up again. While the legislature’s rules say lawmakers can do that, he said in a speech on the Senate floor that he doesn’t think it wouldn’t survive a legal challenge.
The legislature is set to adjourn May 6, and Gardner argued on the Senate floor that date was immovable. He suggested the General Assembly petition the Colorado Supreme Court to make a preemptive ruling on the matter.
“We run the risk that it is a nullity,” Gardner said, referring to any portion of the legislative after May 6.
Fenberg criticized Gardner for bringing up the issue on the Senate floor, saying he should have asked the constitutionality question in private in order to keep anxieties from boiling over.
“I think we are starting to see and hear the situation get politicized,” Fenberg later told The Colorado Sun.
In the meantime, staffers are trying to scrounge online for hand soap. Sergeants-at-arms are wiping down door knobs. And the Capitol smells like Purell.