By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey is not expected to have the usual high-powered audience next month when she gives her annual State of the State address.
Precautions related to COVID-19 are changing much about the 2021 legislative session, including the governor’s annual address kicking off the meeting of lawmakers.
“Gov. Ivey and our team have been in discussions with legislative leadership, and as can be expected, we can anticipate the format of this year’s state of the state address to look significantly different,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola told Alabama Daily News.
The address, Alabama’s version of the State of the Union, is usually given to a joint session of the House and Senate in the historic State Capitol, attended by lawmakers, cabinet members and supreme court judges. This year no joint session will be called and the governor will address the Legislature and citizens on television.
“The governor will deliver her speech via a live televised address, instead of in front of a joint session of the Legislature,” Maiola said. “While the usual pomp and circumstance might be missing, this year’s adjusted format for COVID-19 protocols will allow the governor an opportunity to virtually bring the people of Alabama into the State Capitol as she gives an update on the state. We will continue providing updates on this front as plans are finalized.”
Across the street in the State House, plans are being made for a socially distanced session set to begin on Feb. 2. Public access to the building will be limited, members will be spread out in their chambers and more activity will be streamed online. Lawmakers are expected to meet for two weeks to pass some priority bills and then adjourn for at least a week to assess any issues caused by the virus.
Though they are constitutionally required to meet on Feb. 2, there’s been no push to get lawmakers as a group COVID-19 vaccines prior to the start of session. Some have said they do not want to skip ahead of health care workers, first responders and teachers on the vaccine priority list.
“The House is abiding by the vaccination phases, timelines, and protocols that have already been established by the Alabama Department of Public Health,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon told Alabama Daily News on Thursday.
William Heartsill, communications director for incoming Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said senators who fall into the priority group currently being vaccinated are encouraged to get it.
The Alabama Department of Public Health is following vaccine distribution guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the eligibility group will likely be broadened soon, based on an executive order from President Joe Biden.
Vaccinations started last month, prioritizing those in nursing homes and health care workers. Vaccines became available this week to high priority groups in the “1b” allocation phase, including people 75 and over and first responders.
State officials have urged patience as demand for vaccines has outpaced availability. Harris has said limited supply has been the major issue with the rollout.
As of Thursday, Alabama has administered 202,643 vaccine doses out of the 446,160 doses so far delivered to Alabama, according to state data. The state has been allocated 640,150 vaccine doses so far from the federal government, but not all have been delivered.
Harris said many state lawmakers could be high on the vaccine list because of their age or professions.
“Our thinking through this is that lawmakers are likely to fit into category 1b,” Harris told Alabama Daily News. “We have not gone to 1b yet fully, we did have some higher priority groups that we (prioritized), persons over 75 and first responders, but we have not yet gone to a full 1b at this point.”
The 1b group also includes people “working or living in congregate settings including but not limited to homeless shelters and group homes” and frontline workers, including educators and manufacturing workers and grocery store workers.
Earlier this month, State Superintendent Eric Mackey said he didn’t expect all of the teachers who want vaccines to receive them until the end of the school year.
Meanwhile, Harris said his department has been an information source as leadership in the State House plans a socially distanced session.
“We’ve had a lot of phone calls and a lot of questions,” he said.
Harris said his advice to the Legislature is similar to that given to any other group in the state.
“We understand that certain things may have to take place, but we want people to do them as safely as possible,” Harris said.