State House’s COVID-19 restrictions eased for upcoming special session

State House’s COVID-19 restrictions eased for upcoming special session

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

After restricted public access the past two regular legislative sessions, next week’s special session of the Alabama Legislature will largely be free of COVID-19 protocols.

Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris said that people who aren’t vaccinated are asked to wear masks, as is the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but there will be no enforcement of that request.

“We’re asking people to use common sense,” Harris said.

The Senate gallery will again be open to the public, Harris said but distancing in committee rooms will still be in place, he said.

“We’re not going to pack the hearing rooms,” Harris said. 

The State House wasn’t closed to the public for the spring 2021 regular session, but because of social distancing requirements, there weren’t many places for the public to gather or linger. People were encouraged not to come unless they had appointments with lawmakers and temperature checks were required to enter certain floors. Those restrictions will be gone for the special session on prison construction that starts Monday.

As was started in the spring, committee meetings will be live streamed so people can watch outside the building, Harris and House Clerk Jeff Woodard said.

Woodard said people will be asked to maintain social distancing in meeting rooms and hallways.

“But generally, in terms of the common areas I think the public will be able to move around pretty freely,” Woodard said.

Woodard said the House gallery where the public can normally sit will likely be reserved for House members so that lawmakers can more easily spread out.

“Some members will be voting with tablets again,” Woodard said.

Woodard said the plan is to have a video feed of the House floor in Room 200, the largest of the committee rooms, where the public can watch the action.

Some meeting rooms will be available to House members on the second floor to hold meetings with groups. Those rooms are larger than their offices, Woodard said.

In the spring, committee meetings were limited so that they could all happen in a handful of rooms that allowed for live streaming. A special session’s focus is more narrow than a regular 15-week regular session so there shouldn’t be multiple committee meetings happening at once.

The special is expected to start Monday. Special sessions, those outside the regular spring meetings, can include up to 12 legislative meeting days over a 30-day period.

A survey conducted last month for ADN showed that access to the State House during sessions is important to the majority of Republican voters.

Asked how important it is for citizens to have in-person access to their elected representatives while the Legislature is conducting business, 80.1% said it was important, 14% said it was unimportant and 5.9% said they were unsure.

Another special to redraw the state’s congressional, legislative and state school board districts is expected in late October or early November.

Woodard said the cost of a special session is estimated at about $364,000. Lawmakers get paid the same amount regardless of special sessions, but that amount includes their travel reimbursements. That amount also includes additional part-time staff and supplies.