COVID-19 Health Measures You Need to Know Before Visiting the State Capitol
UPDATED 01/12/2021 at 11:25 a.m. CST - The Texas legislature convenes the first day of the 87th legislative session today at noon.
The Senate and House have adopted several measures to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, the respiratory virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, during the opening ceremonies. Among the actions, the ceremonies’ durations are shorter than a typical opening of a legislative session, and there will be limited seating designated for invited guests and the public.
The public may access the Capitol; however, the Texas Department of Public Safety requires visitors to take a COVID-19 test before entering.
“We understand that this might be an inconvenience for some; however, the department considers it essential for public safety purposes during opening day,” according to a statement posted on the department’s website.
The Texas Division of Emergency Management will administer tests at the North entrance of the Capitol. Click here for maps and plans of the Capitol.
Opening Day Ceremonies
Both legislative chambers are set to host opening ceremonial sessions at noon on Jan. 12.
In the Senate Chamber, guest seating for the ceremonial session will be allocated by each of the 31 senators, according to an announcement released on Jan. 4 by the lieutenant governor. Floor seating will be for one family member each.
No floor seating will be available outside the chamber's brass rail or anywhere else on the Senate floor. During previous opening sessions, the Senate Chamber floor is usually made available to families and guests of the senators.
Each senator will be provided three tickets for seats available in the Senate Gallery for additional family or constituents. The seating is being limited to less than 100 guests to accommodate social distancing.
Each senator, their staff members, and their opening session guests will be given rapid COVID-19 test when entering the Capitol. The testing is free and results are often available within 15 minutes after a nasal sample is collected.
On opening day only, Senate guests are to enter through the capitol's east entrance. Testing will be performed at that entrance.
Also differentiating from past opening day ceremonies is the length, which will be shorter to "reduce time spent in large gatherings," according to the Patrick's announcement.
"The Senate is reducing all ceremonial events and gatherings this session to focus solely on their constitutional legislative duties," according to the lieutenant governor's announcement.
Protocols and rules for the first 60 days of the legislative session won't be voted on by senators until the first week of the new session. However, according to the lieutenant governor's website, throughout the entire legislative session, Senate offices will be open by appointment only. The lieutenant governor's office says this is to help the offices remain socially distant and to protect the health of their staffs and visitors.
Additional protocols will be released after the Senate approves the rules.
In the House chamber, several protocols, including chamber access restrictions, sanitation, and testing requirements recently established as necessary to ensure the health and safety of the House members, their guests, staff, news media and the public.
As reported in a previous TEXPERS blog post, the opening ceremony is to be shorter than the kick-offs of past sessions. And like the Senate, the number of people admitted to the House ceremony will be limited to the chamber's floor and gallery.
Each House member will be provided two guest seats. Guest seating will be assigned, reserved, and ticketed. Overflow seating will not be available. Because of the limited seating, Geren suggests members-elect host livestreams of the ceremony in their offices for immediate family members who will not have assigned seats on the floor or in the gallery.
House members, guests, and staff are asked to self-screen for virus symptoms before coming to the Capitol; however, those entering the building might have their temperatures taken.
After being closed for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Capitol reopened on Jan. 4. The State Preservation Board is responsible for maintaining the Capitol and posted a notice outlining precautions intended to minimize the transmission of the virus that causes the respiratory disease.
"In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, health and safety protocols have been put in place that allow for the Capitol's reopening while maintaining a safe environment for all visitors, lawmakers, and staff," according to a joint announcement by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen on Dec. 20. "Preparations to safely conduct business in the Texas House and Senate are ongoing, and each chamber will vote upon their respective rules and protocols at the start of the legislative session."
Before public pension fund administrators and trustees begin visiting the building, they should familiarize themselves with the changes.
Hours of Operation
The building's public hours have changed. The operating hours are now 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The Capitol is closed Saturday and Sunday for cleaning.
Visitors may only enter the Capitol at the north door. All persons also must wear a mask covering their mouth and nose while inside the building.
The Preservation Board recommends visitors receive a COVID-19 test before entering the Capitol. Free testing is available on the north plaza of the Capitol grounds. The notice indicates that personnel will not collect personal data during testing.
The number of visitors is limited to accommodate social distancing in all public areas of the building. Also, public tours, groups, and sponsored event space are not available.
When the House and Senate convene, each will manage public access to their offices and assemblies by adopting rules. TEXPERS members wishing to visit their representatives and senators should check with their offices for guidelines.
TEXPERS trustees and administrators interested in viewing the ceremony can watch the livestream here.
Some measures to protect legislators and the public are already in place, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The Capitol has installed plexiglass dividers between legislative committee members in rooms used for public hearings.
In Geren's memo, he said crews will use ultraviolet disinfecting units on the House floor and in the chamber's gallery. Hand sanitation stations also are to be installed outside all doors of the House floor the gallery, and the chamber members' desks. Air purifications units area already in the Capitol building's HVAC system above the House floor and gallery. According to Geren's memo, the devices effectively kill the virus that causes COVID-19 in the air and on surfaces. The chairs of the representatives are also spaced out to adhere to social distancing.
TEXPERS will update this post as additional information becomes available.
- House Members Information (desk/office/phone)
Allen Jones is the Communications and Public Relations Manager at the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems. He has been with the association since January 2017. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.