BOISE, Idaho — Heading into the 2021 Idaho legislative session, a major topic of conversation centers on what the COVID-19 protocols will be in the Statehouse.
“There is a very concerted effort to make sure that people are safe, people feel comfortable and that operations can continue as normal as possible,” said Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma.
Critics claiming there is no real COVID-19 protocols set for the 2021 legislative session are simply wrong, according to Blanksma.
“Just because [lawmakers] didn’t have a detailed plan as to what things were being implemented in the Capitol building doesn’t mean that we weren’t working off of a detailed plan,” she said.
After receiving a letter from a number of community groups and organizations about COVID-19 protocol concerns at the Statehouse, Republican leadership published a list of changes that have been implemented recently, as well as evolved guidelines from the special session over the summer.
One example of those changes is the new expanded audio and video capabilities in every committee room.
“That also allows us to have overflow rooms so that we can allow for social distancing within the committee room and then allow for overflow because of the new audio and video technology, which I think is huge," Blanksma said. "I think that also enables us to be a little bit more proactive than we have been with virtual testimony."
In 2021, committee chairmen will have the discretion to allow virtual testimony in their sessions for those not comfortable being in-person. Those in-person will notice changes from years past.
Per new guidelines, committee rooms have been reconfigured to create social distancing for committee members and the public. That was first done during the special session over the summer, a time where a lot of things were learned for 2021.
“We keep stress testing things because anything in 2020 we are great at stress testing, and so we are finding the holes in the plans and are able to adapt as the situation moves on," Blanksma said. "I think that is important to remember that we are really trying to adapt our best to provide interaction that the public wants, that the media wants and the legislators want, and there is no one solution for all of that.”
Other changes for 2021 include adapted HVAC system operation, air filtration and UV purifier systems, hand sanitizer and masks available throughout the Statehouse, as well as continued options for lawmakers like plexiglass barriers to have up at their desks.
Democrat leaders spoke out last week asking for their GOP colleagues to support an idea to push back the session until April. For now, that is not on the table, but that is not to say that if things change while in-session they won’t be flexible to change course, according to Blanksma.
“We are looking to find as many solutions that can make as many people happy as possible," she said. "It’s not an all-or-nothing deal and I think that is what’s disappointing about the demands that are being made is that there is no negotiation going on. It’s just a demand that’s being made and we have to make a lot of people happy, not just a small minority."
Like during the special session, lawmakers will not be required to wear masks but have been asked by leadership to make good decisions about observing COVID-19 guidelines. Blanksma has found many people are willing to cooperate out of respect for their colleagues.
“People don’t like mandates but they are willing to cooperate to make other people feel comfortable," she said. "I think that’s overwhelmingly what I am hearing from my caucus is they don’t want a mandate, but if to do their job they need to do something to make other people feel comfortable, that’s how we operate."
Lawmakers will begin the session Jan. 11, 2021. Leadership is asking everyone from lawmakers to staff to the public to keep each other’s health in mind while at the Capitol.
“Before we all assume the worst, let’s get there and try to do our best," Blanksma said. "We will see how it goes but again, it hasn’t been neglected. There is a plan and obviously, we just want to make sure as many people are aware of it as possible, so they feel some level of comfort.”
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