UPDATED: Lawmakers adjusting for pandemic session


(Updated to include concerns expressed by Democratic lawmakers)

No, Kansas legislators will not convene in an arena or a ballpark.

They also won’t work out of an NBA-styled bubble where their living arrangements are connected to the Capitol.

But the climate will be decidedly different next week when lawmakers return to Topeka during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kansas legislative leaders are making varying degrees of adjustments, especially in the House where committee room chairs are being removed to foster social distancing and many lawmakers will be seated in the gallery to keep the virus from spreading.

Statehouses have become hotspots for COVID-19 throughout the last year with outbreaks in Mississippi and Arkansas.

An ongoing count kept by The Associated Press shows that more than 250 state lawmakers nationwide have been stricken with COVID-19, and at least seven have died.

At least six lawmakers in Kansas have come down with COVID-19 during the last year, including the House speaker, the new Senate president and the incoming Senate vice president.

And there are concerns the numbers could worsen during the upcoming session.

In Michigan, eight lawmakers and 21 staffers have been infected with COVID-19.

Fourteen lawmakers in Arkansas have contracted the virus.

And in Mississippi, 49 lawmakers and a dozen staffers were hit with the virus.

Plexiglas shields mounted on desk in House chamber

In Kansas, House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. has undertaken efforts to change the way the House operates during the pandemic.

Seating arrangements are being reconfigured in the 10 committee rooms used by the House so lawmakers can keep a safe distance from each other as they deliberate.

Chairs and benches are being removed from House committee rooms to allow for social distancing, which could leave lobbyists, activists, agency staffers and the media to watch or listen to meetings remotely.

Three House committee rooms will have adjacent overflow rooms where a limited number of interested parties can watch committee proceedings unfold.

A committee room that has been reconfigured to include tables where lawmakers will be socially distanced.

All the committee rooms have now been wired for audio and video feeds with about $3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds.

Testimony is supposed to be posted online.

Anyone testifying will have the option of addressing a committee remotely in either the House or the Senate.

Plexiglas shields have been added to the benches where the House clerks sit in the chamber so they can work safely as lawmakers debate legislation. There are no shield in the Senate.

New computer software – costing about $33,000 – will allow House members to vote remotely from their state-issued laptops since many will be seated in the gallery.

Lawmakers can only vote remotely so long as they are still in the chamber after the attorney general found that the state constitution required legislators to physically be in the same room to pass bills.

House members can discuss and vote on legislation remotely in the House but not in the Senate.

Each seat in the House chamber is marked with a sheet of paper showing where lawmakers would sit during the session.

Reporters will not be given floor passes in the House in an effort to limit access to the floor and give lawmakers more room to spread out.

Reporters are traditionally seated next to each other in the front of the House chamber, with little room in between them if it’s a busy day.

There’s a possibility that access to the Capitol could be limited to only those who have legislative business at the statehouse.

“We want the building to be as safe as possible,” House Speaker Ryckman said last week during a meeting of the top legislative leaders.

“We also know that we need to do what we were elected to do, especially during this time of crisis. We need to be able to be in a position to still have the checks and balances in the system,” Ryckman told the Legislative Coordinating Council.

Already, Gov. Laura Kelly announced her plans to deliver her State of the State Address remotely by Facebook next Tuesday.

Ryckman, who came down with COVID-19 last summer and was briefly hospitalized, has personally hauled chairs out of committee rooms and counted off 6 feet with a tape measure between seats to determine how many people can safely be accommodated.

He acknowledged that House leadership will watch and see how the session develops, leaving open the possibility for changes.

“We’ll adapt and adjust as we go,” Ryckman said in an interview. “Ideas today may not be the same in a month. We’ll find out what works and what doesn’t.”

He said he’s received mixed responses to efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

“Most are appreciative we’re taking the steps we know of to keep people safe,” he said.

“If we’re going to have checks and balances on the governor, we need to be here,” he said.

Officials from the University of Kansas Health System recently toured the Capitol and made a series of recommendations for keeping the Capitol safe.

The report recommended increasing the spacing of furniture and removing chairs or other furniture that promotes sitting and congregating.

It also recommended keeping a 6-foot distance during all interactions in the Capitol and keeping doors open to promote circulation when meetings last longer than 30 minutes.

The report also recommended mask use throughout the statehouse unless within a closed-door office alone, something that is not being required.

Democratic state Rep. Jerry Stogsdill of Prairie Village called on legislative leaders to delay bringing lawmakers back to Topeka until late February or early March.

He said that should give time for the number of COVID-19 infections to recede and allow for more Kansans to get vaccinated.

“I think it is irresponsible to go into a full session starting Jan. 11,” he said. “There is no reason to rush this. We want to be sure that we’re safe, our families are safe and our constituents are safe.”

Even with the protocols that House leadership is putting in place, Stogsdill has concerns about other parts of the building, including the elevators.

The elevators, he said, provide no room for social distancing as lawmakers ride from floor to floor.

Democratic state Rep. Pam Curtis of Kansas City expressed dismay on Facebook about the fact that the KU health recommendations were not being followed in total.

She was alarmed that the Legislature was still planning to meet after reports that Kansas had the highest death rate per capita in the country from COVID-19.

“I applaud the efforts of leadership to put safety measures in place,” Curtis wrote on Facebook. “However, not all of the recommendations in the KU Health Systems’ COVID report on the statehouse are being followed.

“By not following all of these recommendations we are putting everyone at risk. We compound the problem with those conducting business in the statehouse traveling to all four corners of the state and the 2021 session becomes a potential super spreader event.”

State legislatures across the country are grappling with how to meet during the pandemic.

The House of Representatives in New Hampshire plans to hold a drive-in style meeting in January at the University of New Hampshire after the speaker died of COVID-19.

The Arizona Senate, meanwhile, will mandate masks for the upcoming legislative session. Failure to comply could lead to the session being shut down.

Also, Colorado is delaying the start of its legislative session until February at the earliest.

And Delaware will hold its first month of the legislative session virtually.

Not everyone is moving in the direction of those states.

The Montana legislature convened Monday with no mask requirement in place, although it agreed to allow lawmakers to participate remotely if they chose.

The Kansas Senate, meanwhile, is taking similar steps as the House.

Among other things, the Senate will:

  • Use flexible seating arrangements to promote social distancing as much as possible, both in the Senate chamber as well as in committee rooms.
  • Work with the calendar to minimize days and time on the Senate floor.
  • Minimize the number of people on the Senate floor by limiting access to those who are essential to the conduct of legislative business.
  • Allowing stakeholders and members of the public to testify remotely before Senate committees.

The House and the Senate will provide masks to lawmakers on request and plans to make COVID-19 testing available to legislators and staff.

“The intent of these common-sense measures is to allow the people’s business to continue safely and transparently, allowing the public to participate actively in their state government,” incoming Senate President Ty Masterson said.