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In The Mountain West, State Legislatures Could Become COVID-19 Hot Spots

Idaho Capitol
Adobe Stock
The Idaho state Capitol.

 State lawmakers across the Mountain West are convening for legislative sessions that will focus largely on the fallout of the pandemic. But without significant precautions, statehouses could become hotbeds for COVID-19 spread.

Legislative sessions typically bring together hundreds of lawmakers, legislative staff, lobbyists, journalists, and members of the public. They travel to and from every corner of a given state and gather indoors, sometimes in cramped meeting spaces.

"Those are the ingredients for a risky situation when it comes to transmission," said Glen Mays, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health.

Mays says conducting legislative business online , as New Mexico lawmakers have opted to do, is the safest course of action. Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming's legislatures have adopted measures that give lawmakers the option of voting and otherwise participating in sessions virtually.

Mays added that a decision to delay Colorado's in-person session until more of the population is vaccinated will make a difference.

"We are phasing in another powerful protection, and as we get more of that vaccine distributed, that's certainly going to help," Mays said.

Lawmakers in Wyoming are addressing urgent business during an abbreviated, hybrid session on Tuesday, Jan. 12 and are scheduled to reconvene for a delayed full session in March.

Elsewhere in the Mountain West, legislatures are gaveling-in on schedule and in-person. In Montana, lawmakers implemented new guidelines several days into the session after a lawmaker announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, but masks and temperature checks are still only encouraged, not required, at the Montana State Capitol. In Idaho, two Democratic lawmakers and several disability rights organizations have filed lawsuits against the state legislature over a lack of COVID-19 restrictions in the statehouse.

Utah's legislature has implemented stricter precautions, including a mask mandate and daily, rapid COVID-19 testing for its session, which will begin on Jan. 19. Logistics and precautions for Nevada's session, which is scheduled to begin on February 1, are still under consideration .

According to Mays, it's predictable that some Republican-controlled state houses have been resistant to changes that could prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"These public health protective measures have been politicized and it's unfortunate but it's very, very clear as you look across the country," Mays said.

He added that since the demographics of state legislatures tend to skew older, COVID-19 outbreaks in statehouses could be especially deadly.

Correction: An earlier audio version of this story incorrectly stated that the Wyoming State Legislature did not have plans to delay its session. In fact, it has delayed the bulk of its session until March.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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