Colorado lawmakers return to work in a building and to a process full of changes

Posted at 5:57 PM, May 26, 2020

DENVER — Even before stepping foot inside the Colorado capitol Tuesday, state lawmakers could tell things were different.

Some of the doors they normally use to get into the building were blocked off; everyone was being funneled to the south entrance where medical volunteers wearing blue masks took people’s temperatures and asked everyone coming in questions like, “Have you had a sore throat?” or “Have you had any flu-like symptoms?”

Visitors whose temperatures were below 100.4 degrees and who haven’t had any symptoms were given a red wristband and directed inside. Those with a temperature above that were encouraged not to enter (though this is only guidance and people weren’t explicitly kept out of the building.

Stepping inside the marble halls, the notable changes continued. Stairwells were marked with red signs indicating “Up Only” or “Down Only” to keep people from passing one another in the narrow corridors. The normally packed basement food area was barren with the seats blocked off by caution tape and benches, and seats in the hallways had signs telling people they couldn’t sit down.

“It’s obviously strange,” said Rep. Patrick Neville.

Inside the House and Senate chambers, were even more changes. Plexiglass barriers were set up between the desks of lawmakers, and most people were wearing masks. The microphones where legislators speak were also covered with paper cloth.

Some legislators even volunteered to move their workstations up to the gallery on the balcony above the floor where visitors normally sit in order to spread out.

“We are trying to make sure that we are social distancing and that we’re safe. Our staff is worked around the clock to try to create the safest environment that we have,” said House majority leader Rep. Alec Garnett.

For the House, that meant members, who normally use an electronic voting machine, had to shout their votes from up above to be counted. As vote after vote happened, it took a little while for lawmakers to find their rhythm.

“For the most part, you’re going to see the legislature adapt to get back to work and hopefully do it in a collaborative way,” said Rep. Garnett.

From her Lakewood home 20 minutes away, Senator Brittany Pettersen watched on her computer as her colleagues got back to business. Sen. Pettersen chose to stay home for the first day of the session for the sake of her family.

“My husband has an autoimmune disease, and I have a 4 1/2-month-old at home,” she said.

Even with all the new safety measures in place, she was worried about returning to the poorly ventilated building with so many people in close proximity.

“Today, the first day, you saw a lot of people from one side of the aisle who refused to wear masks. That’s sending the wrong message to Coloradans, and it’s also putting your colleagues and their families and communities in danger,” Sen. Pettersen said.

She is planning on returning to the capitol when her bills are being debated on the floor, and during various votes, however, she doesn’t want to expose her family to more risk than she has to.

It’s one of the reasons why this week, Democrats are planning to introduce a resolution that would allow members to participate remotely in some instances. For Sen. Pettersen, the resolution is about leading by example. If the governor is telling people not to gather in large groups and stay home when possible, lawmakers should do the same.

“Being there isn’t necessary all of the time, and we’re creating a system where we can do this safely. It is hard; I mean, I would rather be there. I think everyone feels that way,” she said.

Rep. Garnett says the changes will only last while the state is under an emergency declaration. However, Rep. Neville doesn’t agree with the prospect.

“I have major concerns if we’re saying we’re going to allow legislators to do that but not allow the same for citizens,” he said.

He contends that if lawmakers are allowed to participate remotely, the public should be allowed to offer remote testimony as well.

Several bills from before the recess have already been postponed indefinitely, meaning they are done for the rest of the session. Several other COVID-19 response bills will be introduced in the coming days.

For now, lawmakers are adapting to all of the changes in the building and the legislative process as they brace for a long few weeks ahead.