Masks required, COVID-19 tests encouraged for opening day in the Texas House next month

By Cassandra Pollock

People attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be required to wear masks and asked to take coronavirus tests ahead of the event, the chair of the House Administration Committee wrote in a memo to lawmakers Monday.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said there may be additional screenings or temperature checks as people enter the building for the festivities, which typically see the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and families. If a House member tests positive for the virus, he wrote, "arrangements will be made ... to allow them to take the oath of office."

"The duration of the ceremony will be shortened," he wrote, "and there will be a significant reduction in the number of people admitted to the House floor and gallery."

Access to the House floor will be restricted to lawmakers, essential staff, ceremony participants, temporary officers and approved guests, Geren said. Members of the media, the public and additional guests who have been approved to attend the ceremony will be seated in the House gallery.

Each lawmaker or incoming member will have two guest seats for family or friends either on the chamber floor or in the gallery. Guest seats will be spaced approximately three and a half feet from one another side-to-side and staggered front to back, Geren wrote. That spacing, coupled with the requirement of face masks, "is acceptable to medical professionals consulted by the House," he wrote.

Geren also wrote that there will be hand sanitation stations outside the chamber and on members' desks and that ultraviolet light disinfecting units will be used on the floor and in the gallery.

As the legislative session has neared, conversations over how the Legislature should operate during a pandemic have come into focus, with leaders in the House and Senate suggesting that masks and testing could be required, as well as limiting the number of people allowed inside the Capitol and spacing out the meetings of certain committees.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the GOP leader of the Senate, told senators that people wishing to testify on legislation before a committee may need to register days beforehand and take a test ahead of the hearing. A spokesperson for the lieutenant governor said at the time that conversations were still ongoing about specific protocols and that Patrick was in talks with state Rep. Dade Phelan, the likely next House speaker.

It was unclear Monday whether the Senate has settled on plans for how the chamber will operate on the first day of the session. During his meeting with senators, Patrick said there is a possibility that the chamber's 31 senators may be allowed to have only one guest with them on the chamber floor and another in the gallery for the opening day ceremony — and that everyone entering the Senate would have to be tested for the virus beforehand.

Sherry Sylvester, a senior adviser to Patrick, declined to comment Monday and pointed to a previous statement that Patrick and Phelan "hope to be able to make an announcement regarding the Session shortly."

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