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State Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, on the floor of the state Senate on Feb. 18, 2020. The set up in the chambers will change when the legislative session resumes amid the pandemic. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers and the public will not be required to wear masks or adhere to standard coronavirus protocols at the Capitol when the legislative session resumes next week.

Democratic and Republican leaders failed to agree on any public health measures and instead decided Monday to issue only informal guidance. The recommendations ask lawmakers and the public to wear face coverings when the Capitol reopens May 26 but do not require them.

Everyone who enters the building will undergo a health screening with a temperature check, but it is only advisory and even people with a fever over 100.4 degrees will be allowed to enter. The guidance says lawmakers and visitors should be “very mindful” to stay 6 feet apart from others, but it avoids stronger language on social distancing.

The lack of mandatory public health protocols came after Republicans objected to requirements about wearing masks, and it raises questions about whether the Capitol is a safe place to work given that the General Assembly is not following workplace guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state department of public health or the City of Denver.

State Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said masks are needed to ensure public safety. “I think the good news is that there is room in the ER if anyone gets sick. The bad news is for some reason masks have become a partisan issue. A cloth mask doesn’t keep you safe. It keeps other people safe from you,” he said in an interview. 

Not wearing a mask, he added, is “really abhorrent. It’s disrespectful. It’s rude that colleagues in the legislature wouldn’t wear a mask to keep their other colleagues safe.”

State Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, she’s nervous to go back to lawmaking. Winter’s father typically takes care of her children during the session, but he’s in a vulnerable population. “For me, going into a high-risk environment where my child care was with a high-risk individual has put us in a really hard spot,” she said.

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Winter said her two children are also anxious about her returning to the Capitol. She’s tried to be honest and empathetic with them about the risks, showing them images of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee meeting at a distance and most of its members wearing face coverings.  

All legislative staff are required to wear masks, according to separate guidelines, and those workers who are considered high risk or have family members in that category may request to work from home.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said he will strongly encourage members to follow the guidelines, but suggested that stronger rules were not appropriate. “We know from experience that using words like ‘mandate’ and ‘require’ don’t necessarily work,” he said during a recent legislative meeting.

Some lawmakers may participate remotely at times 

Other elements of the legislative work will look quite different. To distance themselves in the cramped chambers, lawmakers will sit at every other desk on the floor and not directly behind each other. Those without seats will sit in the gallery above. 

The rooms directly off the chambers where lobbyists gather will be closed. The microphone where lawmakers speak on the floor will be covered by a disposable sock and plexiglass partitions will be erected in a few places where social distancing is not feasible.

Democratic leaders in both chambers will allow lawmakers to participate remotely in a limited scope, but the terms are not clear on how it would work. “There isn’t consensus but I do think there are things that we can do to reduce some opposition and reduce some of the anxiety around it,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.

The lobbyists at the Capitol are asking lawmakers for special accommodations to allow them to do work remotely. The request, outlined in a letter to legislative leaders, includes advance notice of legislation that is expected to be postponed indefinitely and encouragement that lawmakers respond to text messages, phone calls and emails. The leadership in both parties said lobbyists won’t receive special treatment but as always they will work with them to keep them informed.

Other states take varying approaches to lawmaking

A review of data collected by the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures shows a variety of strategies that limited who came to the Capitol buildings and allowed for teleconference meetings.

  • In Alaska, which restarted this week, lawmakers were allowed to skip health screenings and some rebuked extra safety measures.
  • In Oklahoma, access to the Capitol was limited and the public was not allowed to visit. Temperatures were taken at the entrance. Gatherings of more than 10 were prohibited. And lawmakers and staff with higher risk factors were not allowed into the Capitol. Members who couldn’t attend voted remotely via a proxy allowed in the rules.
  • In Virginia, lawmakers returned for a veto session with the House meeting in a large tent outside the Capitol — what one lawmaker called “the big top” — and the Senate gathering in a large room at the science museum. And in North Carolina, the session is set to resume with temperature checks and no public witnesses.
  • In South Carolina, lawmakers spread out in the balcony to keep their distance from one another. And in Utah, lawmakers held a virtual special session.

Colorado lawmakers — who hit pause on the session March 14 —  are allowed to extend their session well into the summer after a state Supreme Court ruling clarified the rules given the pandemic. But Democratic legislative leaders made clear they plan to return for only three weeks.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.