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Government & Politics

Montana Lawmakers To Return To Capitol With COVID-19 Inspired Changes

The Montana Capitol Building in Helena.
tracyelizabeths
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The Montana State Capitol

Next week, Montana lawmakers will hold their first in person interim legislative meetings since the novel coronavirus pandemic began. Related safety precautions will make meetings at the capitol look a bit different.

For one, legislative staff will be required to wear face masks at the capitol to prevent spreading the virus. That includes researchers, attorneys, IT workers and others.

Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, says that mandate follows recommendations from Gov. Steve Bullock’s most recent reopening directive and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As an employer I’m responsible for my staff and keeping them safe, and keeping the environment safe. I think I'm doing the responsible thing to restrict our liability and also to protect those that we come in contact with,” Fox said.

Fox says staff have been “very cooperative” with the mask requirement.

As for additional precautions, rooms were rearranged to allow six feet between committee members. Tables, microphones and gear will be sanitized after each meeting.

State health officials will also provide voluntary temperature checks and evaluations to help lawmakers determine whether they’re feeling symptoms.

“You know, we’ve got everything set up as much as we can logistically, but that human element is always the dynamic that we have to deal with,” Fox said.

Though staff will wear masks, the Legislative Services Division doesn’t have authority to make lawmakers cover their faces.

Legislative Council members butted heads over the issue along party lines during a remote meeting earlier this week. Republican legislative leaders supported personal discretion, while several Democratic colleagues said they wouldn’t feel comfortable attending meetings at the capitol without a strict requirement.

Regardless, the Legislative Audit Committee will hold the first so called hybrid meeting on June 8. That means lawmakers, staff and the public can participate via Zoom or in person at the capitol.

Audit Chair Dee Brown, a Republican senator from Hungry Horse, says she wants as many lawmakers at the capitol as possible to accommodate the committee's complicated work. Brown says she asked members to bring masks, but she can’t require them.

“I can’t arm wrestle somebody and demand they wear a mask. I have suggested it, simply because some people have wanted it, and I want this meeting to go well and be orderly,” Brown said.

The State Administration and Veterans' Affairs Committee will also hold a hybrid meeting at the capitol next week.