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Lawmakers packed into the House floor with clear dividers between desks for the restart of the legislative session on May 26, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The hallways were mostly empty. The lawmakers were mostly masked. The interactions were mostly awkward. 

The General Assembly’s return to the state Capitol after a two-month coronavirus pause looked anything but normal. Members of the House sat at desks divided by plexiglass or in the gallery above the chamber shouting down their votes on legislation. In the Senate, some legislators were forced to balance computers on their laps as they worked in areas of the chamber’s floor typically designated for seating visitors. 

“It’s an 11 on the weird scale,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.

The differences began from the moment visitors entered the gold-domed building, in part because of a last-minute decision by Democratic leaders to put in place mandatory public health protocols.

At the door, visitors had their temperature checked with a contactless thermometer, and volunteers with a global public health organization asked screening questions about potential symptoms. “Do you have a new or worsening cough today? Do you have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing? Do you have a sore throat or other flu-like symptoms?” people entering the building are asked. 

The temperatures were written down in a log along with the time of day they are taken. Anyone granted entry was given a red band to wear around their wrist. Red tape and signs direct people on which direction to walk, where to sit and which staircases to take in the narrow corridors.

People entering the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, May 26, 2020, had their temperatures checked. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The public is required to wear masks — but it remains optional for lawmakers — as part of the new rules issued less than 24 hours before session restarted. The move reversed an earlier decision from Democratic leaders to issue only informal guidance requesting that people wear masks. 

“The General Assembly, acting with newly received legal guidance, will follow the recommendations of medical experts as we responsibly return to work in the Capitol,” House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said in a statement.

Masks showcased a partisan divide in the Capitol. All Democratic lawmakers wore masks, but many Republicans did not. 

State Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, said she didn’t wear a face covering because it inhibits her breathing and she has allergies. She also questioned their efficacy, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend them.

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Democratic leaders hope to do a lot in little time

Colorado lawmakers are expected to remain in session only for three weeks, even though a recent court ruling allows them to continue for longer. The legislature paused its session just past the halfway point March 14 as coronavirus began to spread. 

The pandemic scrambled the legislative agenda, scuttling hundreds of bills and leading lawmakers to introduce new ones. Democratic leaders said the focus now is stronger workplace safety requirements, helping families make ends meet and protecting vulnerable communities from the economic and health dangers of the coronavirus.

The goal is to get out as soon as possible. “We want to act quickly to minimize our time in the legislature,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat.

In the House, lawmakers’ tightly packed desks are now separated by clear plastic partitions. Nine lawmakers sat in the gallery above the chamber floor at makeshift desks with room for a laptop and bill folders. Other lawmakers did not attend because of underlying health conditions or concerns about COVID-19.

One of the lawmakers in the gallery Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, shouted down his vote on a bill to add requirements on new home builders rather than press a green (yes) or red (no) button on his desk. “I actually think it’s fun to voice vote at the end, because it’s not a green or red name on a screen. I voted ‘heck no’ on a bill I didn’t really like.”

Three lawmakers, including Rep. Hugh McKean, center, watch House floor proceedings from their new desks in the gallery on May 26, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Other elements of the lawmaking appeared normal as lawmakers went from desk to desk talking to colleagues and stood together at the front of the chamber to present their bills, in both cases ignoring guidance to stay six feet apart. 

“There’s a degree to which we are all going to live in whatever degree of risk that we have to,” said McKean, who served on a committee that drafted safety protocols. “I don’t know that we are going to get past that.”

Most lobbyists stay away, some because of health concerns

In the Senate, lawmakers were moved onto the cushioned seats lining the chamber walls to make more space. They were forced to balance their computers and papers on their laps as they worked. Staffers were spread out, too, including onto a table that’s normally reserved for reporters. 

There weren’t clear partitions between desks in the Senate and instead lawmakers were seated with one vacant desk between them.

Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, said some routines made things feel normal, such as the prayer before the Senate convenes, roll call for attendance and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

“At least today there seemed to be a spirit of ‘we’re all in this together,’” she said, though she expressed concern that the mood could change. 

Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican clad in an American flag face covering, said he doesn’t think his health is at risk. “I’m not worried at all,” he said. “I feel perfectly safe.”

A committee room at the Colorado Capitol with chairs spaced apart for social distancing on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But Lundeen said he recognizes that others may not feel the same.

Outside of the chambers, the building was not its normally bustling self. Many lobbyists are opting to stay away. The small rooms off the House and Senate floors, where notes are often passed to lawmakers, are closed.

At least one lobbying firm has instructed its staff to stay away. “It’s incredibly weird to be a lobbyist who isn’t in the lobby,” said Becky Long, a lobbyist who works on environmental issues. 

She’s keeping tabs on the legislature from her office across the street. “We are encouraging our clients and our team to work remotely,” Long said. “We don’t feel like we can ensure a safe environment for everyone. And given that the lobby is closed and legislators won’t be taking cards, there’s really not much reason to be in the building for us.”

Updated at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 27, 2020: This story has been updated to correct where state Sen. Paul Lundeen is from. He lives in Monument.

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

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul