By SAM METZ AP/Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — The Nevada Legislature will limit access to the public when lawmakers convene next month to confront the coronavirus pandemic and rebalance the state budget.
Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Brenda Erdoes announced Thursday that only lawmakers, staff and a small number of reporters will be allowed in the building initially. The rules, Erdoes said in a statement, were designed to adhere to the state’s COVID-19 protocols, which cap capacity and require face-covering. The public will be allowed to participate in hearings via videoconference and all proceedings will be broadcast on the Legislature’s website and YouTube.
Once lawmakers and essential staff are offered the vaccine, the Legislature plans to loosen the rules to allow the public to testify in-person in limited numbers as lawmakers deliberate over bills.
“Each person who participates in person in a committee hearing will be required to present a completed COVID-19 vaccination card or take a shallow nasal swab Rapid COVID-19 test before entering the building,” Erdoes said in a statement.
Vaccines have been made available to lawmakers traveling to Carson City from Clark County, which has prioritized people essential to sustaining government functions. But not all lawmakers may be vaccinated, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said.
“I know that southern Nevada legislators were given an opportunity to be put on a list and some got vaccinated and some didn’t,” the Las Vegas Democrat said on a Thursday panel organized by the Nevada Independent. “It was an individual thing that I think is fair to folks’ privacy.”
Unlike during special legislative sessions held in July and August 2020, the Legislature plans to offer weekly COVID-19 testing for those allowed in the building while it remains closed to the public. During the summer, the Legislature asked everyone in the building to get tested in the lead-up to the session. The Nevada National Guard offered testing for the first special session, but due to test processing delays and advice from the state epidemiologist, did not ahead of the second session.
One lawmaker and her husband tested positive during the summer’s proceedings and several have since reported testing positive as well.
Nevada laboratories are no longer facing lengthy test turnaround times, but case counts and infection rates have spiked dramatically since the summer.
Lobbyists, advocates and gadflies typically fill the corridors of the legislative building. Ahead of the session, some are worried about not being able to engage in casual conversations with lawmakers and staff. Erdoes said there were plans to introduce a bill to change lobbyist registration rules, which currently only regulate those who appear in-person.
“There are a couple tax proposals, like property tax bills, that we’re watching that are going to be difficult to try and go through the process, when you’re not having those conversations in-person with legislators,” lobbyist Jenny Reese said Tuesday at a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce panel.
Elsewhere in the U.S., statehouses are taking different approaches to confronting the pandemic. Some are requiring masks, while others aren’t. Some are convening remotely, while in New Hampshire, lawmakers convened in early January for a drive-in session held in a university parking lot. An Associated Press tally found as of Jan, 4, more than 250 state lawmakers across the country have contracted COVID-19, and at least seven have died.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.