By Alex Samuels, Texas Tribune
All Texas senators attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be tested for the coronavirus, and media and public access to the chamber will be limited, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Monday morning.
In a public memo, Patrick outlined a list of protocols for the Texas Senate’s Jan. 12 opening day, which typically sees the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and families.
“Senators have agreed to a much shorter opening day ceremony to reduce the time spent in a large gathering,” he wrote. “The Senate is reducing all ceremonial events and gatherings this session to focus solely on their constitutional legislative duties.”
Access to the Senate floor will be restricted to lawmakers and one family member at each senator’s desk. There will be no floor seating outside the brass rail or anywhere else on the Senate floor — a stark difference from past years when the chamber floor was fully in use for family and guest seating.
A pool of four members of the media who have been granted credentials will be allowed in the second-floor gallery on opening day. In normal times, credentialed members of the media are allowed to sit at a table on the Senate floor.
Each lawmaker or incoming member will have three guest seats for family, friends or constituents in the gallery, a move Patrick said will limit the gallery to fewer than 100 guests and ensure space for social distancing. Patrick’s memo made no mention of masks, and it was not immediately clear whether masks would be required in the chamber. The state House has announced that it will require them on opening day.
Patrick also wrote that most Senate offices will be accessible by appointment only to facilitate social distancing and to “protect both the public and their staff.”
“We will fight the spread of COVID-19 by doing all we can to protect the public who visit the capitol as well as employees, staff and the senators,” the memo reads. “In addition to keeping everyone safe, we also want to avoid a potential shutdown due to the virus so we can carry out our constitutional duties over the next several months.”
How the Legislature should operate during a pandemic has been a top concern for leaders in the House and Senate, with some suggesting masks and testing be required, as well as limiting the number of people allowed inside the Capitol and spacing out the meetings of certain committees.
In preparation for the session, the State Preservation Board reopened the Capitol for public access beginning Monday. While testing is not required for entrance, the board said it is “highly recommended” and would be available at the Capitol for no charge. Masks are required for members of the public entering the building, the board said.
In December, Patrick told senators that people wishing to testify on legislation before a committee may need to register days beforehand and take a test ahead of the hearing. A spokesperson for the lieutenant governor said at the time that conversations were still ongoing about specific protocols and that Patrick was in talks with state Rep. Dade Phelan, the likely next House speaker.
In the House, meanwhile, the chair of the House Administration Committee told members last month that people attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be required to wear masks and asked to take coronavirus tests. Access to the House floor will be limited to lawmakers, essential staff, ceremony participants, temporary officers and approved guests.