The public health officer in Lewis and Clark County is recommending lawmakers participate remotely in upcoming caucuses and orientations set for later this week in Helena.
"Reducing the number of people in the Capitol at one time will ultimately reduce the possibility that SARS-COV-2 will transmit as you gather to perform this important work," wrote health officer Drenda Niemann in a letter to legislators Monday.
"This request comes as the state of Montana as well as Lewis and Clark County are experiencing a sharp increase in daily COVID-19 case incidence, hospitals are stretched beyond capacity to serve our communities and we are losing our neighbors, friends and family to this disease."
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Caucuses are when lawmakers pick their leadership for the session that will start in January. Orientation serves as training and a time to handle logistics and paperwork for incoming and returning lawmakers. The events are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at the Capitol building in Helena.
Lawmakers are set to meet as the novel coronavirus is spreading rapidly through the state. More than 48,000 have fallen ill with COVID-19, and more than half of those cases have come since mid-October. At least 522 Montanans died from the virus, again with more than half of those deaths in the last month.
In Lewis and Clark County, there were 860 active cases of the virus reported Monday, and 1,850 cumulative since last spring.
Susan Fox, the executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said Monday that about 100 lawmakers out of 150 total (100 in the House, 50 in the Senate) have indicated they will attend some part of this week's events in person. But that number is in flux as people change their mind or circumstances shift, Fox said.
Most of the legislative staff will be working remotely, though there will be a staff member in each of the caucus rooms, Fox said.
CareHere, the state employee health center, will do temperature checks for people coming into the building, Fox said. Masks will also be available and barriers have been installed at places like the information desk on the first floor.
The caucus meetings have been moved to larger spaces to allow for distance between lawmakers, Fox said. Republicans in the House and Senate will meet in their respective chambers, and Democratic caucuses will be held in some of the building's larger meeting rooms. There will be space in the House and Senate galleries for the media and members of the public, Fox said. Caucus meetings, by law, are public.
Fox said Monday that she's heard from several legislators who plan to attended their party's caucus in person, but not the rest of orientation. All meetings are broadcast online.
In her letter, Niemann said that Legislative Services has "laid out adequate public health precautions that if followed will also serve to limit the possibility the virus will spread in this environment, but only if the overall census is reduced."
Niemann said lawmakers must keep at least 6 feet of distance between each other, wear face coverings at all time, practice good hand hygiene and regularly sanitize surfaces."
Enforcement of protocols in the chambers will fall to the party leadership, Fox said, with staff trying to encourage compliance.
"We don't really have that authority over them," Fox said. "We'll make it as easy as possible for them to comply with things."
Earlier this summer, the day after outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock issued a mask mandate, Republican legislators in the Capitol for an interim meeting did not wear face coverings. That caused Democrats attending virtually to "walk out."
It also kicked off a debate about if the mask mandate applied to state lawmakers conducting legislative business in areas where they're under the jurisdiction of the rules they set for themselves about how the session is conducted. Bullock leaves office in January and incoming Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte has said he will look to "personal responsibility" rather than mandates to control the spread of the virus, so it's unclear what kind of directives Montana will be under come next year.
In public spaces, lawmakers must follow the mask mandate that applies to counties with four or more active cases, Fox said, but in legislative space and when conducing legislative business, "they get to make their own choice."
Fox described it as "a bit of a fine line as to where you are and what you're doing."
State Sen. J.P. Pomnichowski, a Bozeman Democrat, said Monday that the majority of Senate Democrats plan to caucus remotely Wednesday.
"There may be three or four of us of the 19 who may come to the caucus only, not the whole two days of orientation and training," Pomnichowski said. "Our plan is to follow the public health protocols. The Capitol building is a public building, and the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths is increasing, and we in no way want to contribute to the transmission of the virus."
State Rep. Kim Abbott, a Helena Democrat, said before the letter was sent Monday about 20 House Democrats planned to caucus in person and 13 would participate remotely, but she anticipated that would change after Niemann's letter.
"Our folks will take Drenda's precautions seriously and probably end up participating remotely as much as possible," Abbott said Monday afternoon.
A handful of Republican legislators from the House and Senate who have either held or are seeking leadership positions did not return calls Monday afternoon asking about how many people in their caucuses planned to attend in person Wednesday and Thursday.
The format for the upcoming session, which starts Jan. 4, isn't finalized yet. After leadership is elected Wednesday and lawmakers are assigned to committees, the committees that will pass rules governing how the session works will meet and take action on changes that would allow for some sort of hybrid session including remote participation. Some of that work has been done during the interim by the Legislative Council and a rules subcommittee.
"I hope that we can figure out a safe way to do the business of the people of Montana that allows all the entities that need to have a voice in the Capitol to have a voice in the Capitol," Abbott said.