Lawmakers won’t be gathering in person during committee meetings and will instead participate virtually at the start of the legislative session next week.
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) gave additional details to The Nevada Independent on Friday about accommodations meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Typically, groups of lawmakers would convene together for hours in close proximity as they consider bills in committee rooms.
“Because not everyone, including staff, have been vaccinated, and not everyone is compliant [regarding] masks, we are not yet confident in the environment being safe so we are starting committees virtual,” he said. “No one will be allowed in committee rooms and we will assess changes as we assess conditions.”
Legislative staff announced the broad strokes for session logistics last week, indicating that the session will begin closed to the public, with participation carried out through video conferencing and a limited media presence. Lawmakers and staff are prioritized for vaccination, and leadership hope to open up the session more broadly once more people are vaccinated, although leaders declined to give a clear picture last week about how many members had been vaccinated.
The building will remain closed to the public until a majority of essential staff and legislators receive the vaccine, Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Brenda Erdoes told The Nevada Independent on Friday, noting that there is no timeline for that distribution.
“The Legislature is definitely working towards getting the building open and the meetings back to in person. The factors are wiggling all around,” Erdoes said, adding that the Legislature is following guidance from state and federal agencies.
Those entering the Legislative Building while it is closed to the public will have to wear a mask and either present a vaccination card or be tested once a week for the virus, Erdoes said. Staff will have a conversation with anyone not following the mask-wearing mandate, she added.
In contrast to the summer special session, staff are foregoing a sticker system to confirm a person has been screened for COVID-19 symptoms and will not conduct temperature checks at the door, but will perform them continuously throughout the day and in the parking garage.
During floor sessions, the Assembly and Senate chambers will remain at 25 percent occupancy in line with state directives, with only legislators and a small number of staff allowed in, Erdoes said. All meetings will be available via YouTube or Zoom and the state is setting up a registration page so that people can log into Zoom meetings or call in to leave public comment.
Once the Legislature is cleared to partially open up, lobbyists or members of the public can register to provide testimony in-person and will receive a rapid COVID test via a shallow nasal swab that Erdoes said should yield results in 10 to 15 minutes or less. Individuals with proof of vaccination will not need to be tested.
Ideally the Legislature will be completely open to the public at some point, Erdoes said, but ensuring the safety of the 350 essential staff, legislators and members of the press is the first priority.
State Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the Senate Finance committee, said to expect the virtual committee hearings to operate more like meetings of the Interim Finance Committee (where lawmakers and staff all met virtually) than how meetings were conducted during the legislative special session (where lawmakers met in person but members of the public testified remotely).
He said he was advocating for the session to remain virtual for as long as possible until vaccination rates among staff, legislators and others entering the legislative building was at a sufficient level.
"We are nowhere near out of this pandemic," he said. "And as a matter of fact, we are worse now than we were in our special session, based on numbers and spread. So for the health and safety of staff at the Legislative Council Bureau, for the general public, and for the legislators, we need to have as much of a virtual session as we possibly can."
Two special sessions over the summer were closed to the public and included some lawmakers participating by video from their offices or hotel rooms, with others physically gathered in the legislative chambers.
Riley Snyder contributed to this report.
This story was updated on Friday Jan. 29, 2020 to include an interview with Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Brenda Erdoes.