Photo of the front of the Legislative Chamber. Photo by Katie Anderson
Photo of the front of the Legislative Chamber. Photo by Katie Anderson

When state senators return for the summer session, they can expect to see plexiglass barriers, temperature checks and socially distanced seating arrangements.

“We will not be operating as usual when session reconvenes on July 20,” Speaker Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk said in a memo sent out on June 23.

The Nebraska Legislature’s 2020 session was suspended March 16 because of COVID-19 and will reconvene on July 20.

Scheer worked with Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O’Donnell and Chuck Hubka, the Legislative Services Coordinator, to create safety guidelines for the 17-day session. The changes were based on recommendations from Pat Lopez, acting director of the Lincoln/Lancaster County public health department.

Scheer’s main goal is to cut down on the number of people on the legislative floor and to make social distancing between members and staff possible.

Here are some of the protocols from Scheer’s memo:

  • The chamber glass doors to the rotunda will not be in use during session
  • Anyone entering the chamber will enter and exit the chamber through the back hallway
  • The Doctor of the Day program and the Visiting Chaplain program will be suspended
  • The opening prayer will be delivered by a senator each morning before debate
  • Senators wishing to speak to the public, a lobbyist or their staff will need to exit the chamber
  • Senators are encouraged to implement social distancing in their offices between staff and members of the public visiting their office

Scheer has restricted access to the chamber to only select staff members. Senators’ staff will be permitted on the floor contingent upon each bill under consideration.

The state’s latest COVID-19 health directives allow for indoor gatherings that are 50% of rated occupancy. The chamber’s occupancy is between 275 and 300 people, according to the clerk’s office. When session reconvenes, 75 people will be allowed in the chamber.

Scheer is encouraging everyone to follow federal guidelines such as wearing a face mask, washing hands frequently and refraining from handshakes. He also recommends that everyone planning to enter the chamber be tested for COVID-19 through Test Nebraska the week prior to reconvening.

Anyone who enters the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber will have his or her temperature taken prior to admittance. If someone’s temperature is 100.4 or higher and the individual is exhibiting other symptoms of COVID-19, they will not be allowed to enter the Chamber.

Legislative pages will have access to the chamber to assist senators and maintain cleanliness.

Legislative pages, John Otte and Kennedy Zuroff, are excited to return to the Legislature and watch debate.

“I think there are a lot of big issues that need to be discussed like property tax relief, social justice and healthcare,” said Zuroff, a junior psychology and political science major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from Beulah, North Dakota.

In Scheer’s guidelines, he assigned pages to serve as couriers between senators and their staff.

“Our duties as pages are going to be on a rotational basis as we move through the session. Many of us will help deliver messages, monitor the doors and make coffee,” said Otte, a junior political science major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from Bristol, Connecticut.

Chamber Overview 300x200 - COVID-19 changes mean new seating and crowd reductions in the Legislature
Photo of the back of the legislative chamber. Photo by Katie Anderson

The front staff desks and senator desks all have a plexiglass barrier in front of them. Senators who usually sit on the outside aisle of both the north and south sides of the chamber will use the side table next to their row as their desk.

Overview of Side Chair 300x200 - COVID-19 changes mean new seating and crowd reductions in the Legislature
Photo of the side tables in the legislative chamber. Photo by Katie Anderson

To limit the spread of germs, the Legislature has hired an outside cleaning crew to sanitize the chamber, the Senator’s Lounge and balconies every evening.

Microphone 300x200 - COVID-19 changes mean new seating and crowd reductions in the Legislature
Photo of a microphone with a note on it in the legislative chamber. Photo by Katie Anderson

The south balcony of the chamber will be reserved for senators who wish to observe debate, but they won’t have access to a microphone to participate. Media will be assigned to the north balcony where social distancing and face masks are required. Lobbyists and members of the public will not be permitted in the balconies.

For confirmation hearings, there will be one hearing room available to committees. If a committee decides to hold an executive session, there will be two rooms available. The rooms have been arranged to allow social distancing.

Brandon Metzler, assistant clerk of the Legislature, said that Scheer’s procedures are unprecedented but will make for a historic time for the Legislature.

“I’m thrilled to be able to witness it up close and look forward to being of assistance in any way I can,” Metzler said.

Metzler said there is informal discussion of the necessity for legislative staff to be present in the building. He also said that procedures are subject to change if conditions worsen, but it’s up to the speaker to make that call.

“From Scheer’s discussions with Gov. Pete Ricketts, the clerk and other members, I believe he is well informed and is taking every precaution available to ensure a safe and productive session,” Metzler said.