Policy Analysis | April 2021

Coronavirus Impacts on State Legislatures: 2021

Mikko Lindberg, Roger Moore, Nick Bowman, Cody Allen, and Amanda Budd

Last updated: April 15, 2021

As of April 15, 2021, approximately 2.9 million people worldwide, including 548,000 Americans, have died from the coronavirus pandemic. On December 11, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an emergency use authorization for Pfizer/BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine. On December 18, 2020, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for the Moderna vaccine for use in individuals 18 or older. On February 27, 2021, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed a recommended schedule for states to administer these vaccines. As of April 15, approximately 123 million vaccinations have been administered in the United States. Against this backdrop, Southern legislatures are convening for their 2021 legislative sessions.

This SLC Policy Analysis, updated as new measures are implemented, tracks the special measures that Southern legislatures are adopting in order to meet safely in 2021.

Alabama

The Legislature convened on February 2, 2021. The House and Senate plan to convene in their respective chambers. All who enter the State House will be required to wear face masks and have their temperature checked. The House of Representatives will repeat some of the safety measures adopted in 2020 to promote safety among its members. Approximately 58 members will be seated on the House floor, with 34 seated in the viewing gallery and 13 in two overflow rooms, with a television to monitor the proceedings. Locations will be selected based on a member’s health risk and age. Staff members will work to ensure an equitable party distribution for seating assignments. Members not seated on the House floor will cast votes on tablets.

House committee meetings will occur in five meeting rooms, equipped with cameras to allow public participation and access. If necessary, the House may use the archive room in the Alabama State Capitol. If these arrangements are not sufficient, the Legislature may convene in a nearby hotel or conference center.

In addition to requiring a temperature check to enter the State House, a second temperature check will be mandatory for anyone seeking to enter the seventh floor, where the Senate chamber and Senators’ offices are located. Members of the public will need to schedule an appointment to meet with their legislator. Seating in the Senate gallery will be limited.

Arkansas

The 93rd General Assembly convened on January 11, 2021. As a precaution, plexiglass partitions have been installed around members’ desks in the chambers. In addition, one house gallery will be open to members who wish to socially distance and additional video feeds will be installed throughout the building. Members also will be encouraged to remain in their seats and refrain from mingling. The Senate approved rules requiring all individuals - including legislators - to wear a facial covering at all times, unless speaking into a microphone, eating and drinking or while maintaining a distance of at least six feet from others. The House Rules Committee has approved similar rules, pending full approval on the floor. However, its rules include a provision allowing representatives to cast votes remotely - as long as they are present in the building and connected to the Capitol server.

For committee hearings, the schedule has been adjusted to only have half of the typical meetings occurring simultaneously. Physically, the rooms will feature spaced seating for legislators and public agency attendees. If not placed on a consent calendar, bill introductions in committee will be scheduled, at least 18 hours in advance, to ease access for those who wish to speak for or against bills, without having to be at the Capitol daily. Members of the public, including lobbyists, who are there to testify will be stationed in holding rooms until they are escorted by legislators into the room to testify. Closed-circuit video will allow those in the holding rooms to view the meetings live. Meetings also will be livestreamed online to ensure continued public access and transparency. Committee members, as well as state agency employees, also are able to participate remotely in committee meetings. Members of the public also will have to pass a temperature check and onsite health screening in order to be given an armband clearing them to enter the Capitol or MAC buildings.

Florida

The Legislature convened on March 2, 2021. Information on COVID-related precautions during the session for legislators and visitors to the Capitol has yet to be released. In preparation for the session, the Senate has executed a two-year contract with a state hospital to develop and implement a coronavirus prevention and response plan. Leadership has urged all members to use virtual meetings or conference calls as alternatives to unnecessary in-person meetings.

The Senate has implemented a mask requirement, but speakers are allowed to briefly remove masks when addressing a committee. All senators and staff are required to test for COVID-19 prior to each week of session. Additionally, the Senate public gallery is closed and members must pass a temperature screening prior to entering the chamber. The chamber will be sanitized after each sitting and portable HEPA filters will continue to run during, before and after sittings. Members of the public attending Senate committee hearings will participate remotely from the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, a few blocks away from the Capitol, unless invited to attend in-person by a committee chair.

In the House, gallery capacity for visitors has been limited to 50 percent, and members are limited to three registered guests per day. Representatives, legislative staff and guests participating in programs will undergo COVID-19 testing through the on-site legislative testing service. All visitors must wear a facial covering, when in the presence of others, and maintain social distancing. For House committees, seating will be spread out to allow legislators and attendees to socially distance. Seating for committee hearings will be on a limited, first-come first-served basis and feature an online registration system for witnesses. Visitors to House areas, including lobbyists, will be required to socially distance and wear a facial covering, when in the company of others. In-person meetings with House members will require an appointment and generally be limited to two guests in a representative’s office and one guest in an aide’s office.

Georgia

The General Assembly sine died on April 1, 2021. Georgia legislators and their employees were required to be tested for COVID-19 twice a week. These tests were administered by the Georgia Institute of Technology, with results generally available by the end of the day. Both chambers used contact tracing in the event of a positive test result. House Speaker Ralston held legislators accountable for this protocol, addressing it several times throughout the session.

Legislators and staff were also required to wear masks during the session. In the House, members were permitted to remove their masks while addressing the chamber or in committee meetings. They were required to replace their masks when done. Additionally, the House Page Program was suspended and legislators were not allowed to bring guests to the chamber.

The annual State of the State address made by Governor Brian Kemp was streamed virtually. Legislators were able to watch from their offices or on a screen in the Senate chamber, as opposed to a typical joint session where both members of the Senate and House of Representatives would have joined in the same chamber.

Kentucky

The Legislature sine died on March 30, 2021. During the session, the Capitol and Annex remained closed to the public, including lobbyists, however, there were protocols in place to schedule meetings with individual legislators in their offices. All legislative committee rooms were updated to include the posting of limited capacity signage on doors, spacing tables, and chairs to ensure social distancing, and new technology for remote attendance and live streaming. Additionally, committee staff provided a list of all attendees testifying in-person at committee hearings.

Leadership also strongly encouraged all members to abide by social distancing recommendations and wear facial coverings at all times, while requiring masks while in chambers as well as in all public areas. Senators voted in-person, with social distancing, in the chamber. In the House, a remote voting application was developed to allow members to vote from their offices and have the vote tally on the board in the chamber. An electronic bill book, which displays bill text and amendments, also was available to members in their offices. Additional precautions included reducing on-site staff, eliminating complimentary pages, and providing COVID-19 testing opportunities for legislators and staff.

Louisiana

The Legislature convened on April 12, 2021. Officials have relaxed many of the pandemic rules that were enacted during the 2020 session, which kept nearly everyone except lawmakers and staff out of the Capitol. The Capitol now is reopened to the public, but masks and temperature checks are required; those with temperatures over 100.4 degrees are denied entrance to the building. Meanwhile, seating in the House and Senate chambers is limited, and caps are placed on the size of groups touring the building.

Mississippi

The Legislature convened on January 5, 2021, and adjourned sine die on April 1. During the session, temperature checks, face masks, and social distancing were required to enter the Capitol. The Senate worked with Mississippi Public Broadcasting to webcast more committee meetings on the Legislature’s YouTube channel.

After three legislators tested positive for the coronavirus, legislative leadership chose to incorporate remote work into the 2021 session. House members were allowed to digitally participate in session and committee meetings, as well as vote online. House members voted to temporarily alter the House Rules to omit the in-person requirement to establish quorum until March 1.

Per the Senate rules, Senate committee meetings require a specific number of in-person attendees to establish quorum. Once quorum is reached, members were allowed to leave the committee room and participate digitally. Senators were required to check-in at the Capitol daily to qualify for their per diem.

Missouri

The 101st General Assembly convened on January 6, 2021. Face masks are required for staff members and optional for legislators. On January 12, the House voted 105-46 against requiring members to wear masks. The House voted to allow members of the public to testify virtually, with video or telephone testimony to be offered if approved in advance by committees.

The House announced they would not be meeting the week of January 18 due to the rising COVID-19 cases in the Capitol building. The Senate continued to meet as scheduled. Senate majority leadership released a statement regarding their decision to continue as planned saying “there is greater ease to which senators and staff can remain socially distant.” According to an AP tally, 11 legislators have contracted COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic.

Dr. Randall Williams, Director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, said both the House and Senate are working to put their own testing inside the Capitol. Legislative leaders announced in late January, they are planning to open a rapid COVID-19 testing clinic inside the Capitol. The clinic would be led by a nurse and would be open to legislators, staff, and others who regularly work in the building, including lobbyists and journalists. House Chief Clerk Dana Rademan Miller said the clinic would hopefully be open within the next few weeks.

The Senate is limiting staff seating in committee rooms and the House of Representatives is allowing employees to work from home when practical. Public seating will be spaced out in House and Senate committee hearings. The Senate also provides live audio streaming of its committee hearings and sessions, and the House livestreams video of its public meetings.

Out of concern for COVID-19, there was no inaugural parade, hand-shaking reception, or inaugural ball for Governor Parson’s swearing-in ceremony. The ball is expected to be rescheduled to August 10 to coincide with the date of Missouri’s entry as the 24th state.

North Carolina

The General Assembly convened on January 13, 2021. Legislators, visitors, and media are encouraged to practice social distancing inside the Legislative Building and temperature checks are required upon entry.

The Senate is requiring members to be physically present for all votes and committee meetings, while the House has allowed virtual committee meetings and remote voting by proxy.

Oklahoma

The Legislature convened on February 1, 2021. On January 29, the Senate and House of Representatives issued COVID-19 protocols for the session. Masks are required for staff and visitors. They are not required for legislators, but are strongly encouraged. Legislators are also allowed to set their own safety rules for their individual offices.

The House has installed clear plastic dividers between desks and allowed members to sit in a designated section of the gallery, instead of the floor, if they prefer. The protocols also allow for remote forms of voting if approved by the House and Senate during the session.

On February 3, 2021, Governor Stitt signed the first bill of the session into law, which allows public entities to continue to meet virtually and maintain public access through February 2022 or until the governor’s COVID-19 executive emergency order expires, whichever comes first. Legislators allowed for virtual meetings last year, but the provisions expired in November 2020.

On January 13, it was announced that the Health Department will offer vaccines to legislators. The department has recommended legislators take the vaccine ahead of the 2021 session. There won’t be a specific vaccination clinic or event and the date of vaccinations could vary.

Per Governor Stitt’s executive order in November 2020, Capitol visitors are required to wear face masks inside government buildings. Currently, this executive order doesn’t apply to legislators. House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat have created separate working groups to determine COVID-19 protocols for the session. The two groups are likely to make decisions regarding capacity limits for committee hearings, social distancing requirements in the House and Senate galleries, and creating overflow rooms for additional onlookers.

South Carolina

The General Assembly convened on January 12, 2021. All 46 senators have agreed to wear masks upon returning to the Statehouse, President Harvey Peeler announced, and social distancing will be maintained at all times on the Senate floor. Additionally, touchless thermometers will be placed at all entrances to the Senate’s Gressette office building to check every person passing through, and COVID-19 testing will be available for all senators and staff.

On the House side, masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer will be available for everybody entering the chamber, and Speaker Jay Lucas said he hopes rapid COVID-19 testing will be available for all members and staff. Plexiglass will be placed at the front of the chamber where the speaker presides. House members will be allowed to cast votes from the balcony or the back of the room, rather than their desks.

Only legislators and essential staff will be allowed inside the House and Senate chambers. Guests will not be permitted during the session.

Tennessee

The General Assembly convened on January 12, 2021. Both chambers have adopted several previous and new safety measures related to COVID-19. The Senate will continue to bar public access to committee meetings and only members, limited numbers of staff and one pool reporter will be allowed on the floor. Video recordings of Senate meetings and floor sessions will be made available online. House proceedings will be open to the public, but at a limited capacity.

An antibacterial mist will be sprayed in both chambers, acrylic barriers between members' desks will be extended in the House and anyone entering the House floor will have their temperature checked and scanned into a computer.

Visits to legislative offices in the Cordell Hull Building will have to be pre-scheduled and members of the public are required to leave the building once appointments have concluded.

In the Senate, members are requested to wear a face covering that covers both the mouth and nose while in public areas, including the Senate floor and hearing room. Senate staff are required to wear a face covering that covers both the mouth and nose in all public areas.

Texas

The Legislature convened on January 12, 2021. Both the House and the Senate adopted rules for their respective chambers during the first day of session. The public may enter the Capitol only via the north door of the building. COVID-19 tests, which will be available to all entrants at no expense, are required to enter the building, and masks will be required at all times while inside. Public visitor capacity limits will be strictly observed to ensure social distancing is maintained in all public areas at all times.

In the House, members, staff, and the public are required to wear masks in the chamber and committee hearing rooms, with some exceptions granted when a member or witness is speaking directly into a microphone. Members also may remove masks during a committee meeting if they are protected by a barrier and socially distanced from others.

During Senate sessions, each member is permitted one staff member on the floor. Masks must be worn in the chamber except when members are alone at their desks. Moreover, to enter the chamber or attend a committee hearing, senators and staff must have a negative COVID-19 test that day.

Virginia

The General Assembly convened on January 13, 2021, and adjourned sine die on March 1, 2021. The House of Delegates met remotely throughout the session, while the Senate convened, with social distancing in place, at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. To accommodate in-person meetings with constituents, legislators were allowed to use four conference rooms at the Bon Secours facility near the Science Museum. Constituents were permitted to schedule appointments to meet with legislators in one of the available conference rooms; however, no more than 10 people were allowed in the rooms simultaneously, and everyone was required to wear masks and stay at least six feet apart from each other.

West Virginia

The Legislature convened on February 10, and adjourned sine die on April 11. During an organizational day in January, the House of Delegates passed Resolution 5 to establish COVID-19 protocols. All House members must wear a face mask or other face covering while on the House floor unless they are actively eating, drinking, or speaking on the floor when recognized by the Speaker. Delegates who choose not to wear a face covering may sit in the south gallery of the chamber. Delegates who wear a face covering but prefer more room for social distancing were allowed to sit in the north gallery.

House committees convened in the House chamber or a larger committee meeting room. The Senate did not detail any special seating arrangements. A statewide mandate requires masks to be worn inside all public buildings. The Legislature’s meeting rooms are equipped to allow members of the public to remotely present to committees. The Senate streams all floor sessions and committee meetings on the Legislature’s website.

After a legislator tested positive for COVID-19 in March, a mobile COVID testing site was added at the Capitol.