WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL) - State lawmakers, legislative staff members, and members of the public will not be required to wear masks in the state capitol when lawmakers return for the start of the 2021 legislative session on Monday.
The new COVID-19 protocols were set by Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and Speaker of the House Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. Republicans have a majority in both the state House and Senate. During the November election, they gained seats in both chambers.
Masks and face shields are available for those who want to wear them but they are not required even when social distancing is impossible.
Whitver and Grassley said the protocols were based on the latest Iowa Department of Public Health and Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The CDC recommends people wear masks "in public settings, like on public and mass transportation, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people."
State Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo, who also works in outpatient therapy and wellness at MercyOne, called the protocols disappointing.
"We're asking Iowans to do one thing but yet we, the leaders at the Capitol, think that that we're better than Iowans and that we don't have to. I think that sends a really terrible message," she said. "That is a slap in the face to our medical workers."
State Senator Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, said she believes there are critical issues facing Iowans that state lawmakers have to deal with. She said leadership has taken extreme steps to keep everyone safe.
"We all ran campaigns and made promises and that was not to pause because there was a pandemic," Sen. Koelker said. "Obviously, we're in an economic crisis and now is the time more than ever, that we need to get down there and make sure that Iowa is stabilized through the rest of this."
Asked if she will wear a mask on the senate floor, Koelker said it depends on the environment once she gets down there and the situation.
"If I am sitting at my desk, and I am six feet away from somebody, I will not be wearing a mask. If I'm up at the microphone speaking, I will not be wearing a mask," she said. "If I am approaching another senator, elected official, or just anyone in general, absolutely I'll wear a mask."
Social distancing will be required within the legislative chambers.
"We are really encouraging our entire caucus to only be at the Capitol when they need to for business," Brown-Powers said. "When they don't need to, they should find a private place at the Capitol or other buildings on the Capitol campus that they can get work done with their clerk."
What happens when a lawmaker tests positive?
Under the COVID-19 protocols, lawmakers, staff and other employees are not required to report a positive test. There are procedures in place for how and to whom to report cases if a member or employee self-identifies or otherwise indicates contact with another individual who has a confirmed coronavirus case.
In most scenarios, Senate and House leadership have the discretion to decide whether to release information on positive cases.
House and Senate leaders said contact tracing would be done by public health agencies and not the general assembly.
"A Four-Day-A-Week Superspreader"
State lawmakers will be required to be in the chambers in-person to vote, debate, and attend committee hearings.
Subcommittee hearings will be held over zoom. Information on how to attend virtually will be distributed at least the day before the meeting. Members of the public can offer comments during the zoom meeting or on the General Assembly's website.
Senate committee meetings will be held on the Senate floor. House committees will occur in normal rooms, with limited in-person seating available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Both chambers will require lawmakers to be physically present to vote in a committee.
"It is tough to speak on behalf of my constituents if I'm not there. I need to be there because that's the job I've been elected to do," Brown-Powers said. "It puts people in a really, really tough situation and that could have been avoided by simply staying with the mandate that we have across Iowa."
Sen. Koelker said she plans to spend most of her time either at her desk in her office or at her desk on the Senate floor.
"We are piped up to work remotely but we just can't vote remotely," she said. "I will be at every subcommittee meeting, I will be at every committee meeting and I will be on the floor during debate and voting. I will not be hiding out or taking that privilege to extreme difficulties."
Brown-Powers said it has all of the makings for what she believes will be a superspreader event. With lawmakers coming from all 99 counties and traveling home every weekend, she said it is the perfect vector.
"Our case numbers are still going up. People are still losing loved ones. They are still dying. And our hospitals still have a significant amount of patients in them," she said. "If we could all be responsible adults, we could protect each other and not potentially take it back to 99 counties."
State Senator Eric Giddens, D-Waterloo, said he does not believe the rules follow the CDC's best practices, but not being there in-person isn't an option. He said he'll personally take all precautions with a mask and face shield on the senate floor.
"I'm just going to take the best personal actions I can while I'm there to try to operate within that system; do the business we need to do but to be as safe as possible," Sen. Giddens said. "I'm also going to be very careful when I come back home on the weekends and do my best to quarantine myself from people at home to try to minimize the spread of this virus as best we can."
General Public Access to the Capitol
The statehouse will be open to the public this legislative session. If you do come to the capitol building, you'll be required to answer a health check questionnaire and have your temperature checked by Capitol Security.
There will not be any to guided tours and access to the chambers will be limited.
For those who can't make it to the capitol, all committee meetings will be streamed online.