When Oregon lawmakers meet to take up new political maps on Monday, it will have been more than 80 weeks since members of the public were allowed into the Capitol with the Legislature in session.
During those weeks, lawmakers conducted three special sessions and a five-month “regular” session. The Capitol weathered an incursion by armed, far-right demonstrators angry because they were locked out. Lawmakers ejected one of their own for his role in planning that breach.
And now, it appears, the streak is about to end. Kind of.
With state limitations on gatherings now replaced by mask mandates, the Capitol is open. According to House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office, members of the public will be allowed in as lawmakers debate how to rejigger the state’s 90 legislative districts, and add an additional congressional district.
But as an ongoing construction project limits space in the building and COVID-19 continues a worrisome spread among unvaccinated Oregonians, the public will have less access than they would in normal times. Hearings of the House and Senate redistricting committees are expected to occur virtually, and the galleries where members of the public can typically watch the House and Senate will be closed to the public. Visitors will instead watch via closed-circuit television.
The result, it appears, will be a sort of hybrid session, with members of the public allowed to stroll underneath the Capitol’s rotunda and purchase items from the gift shop, but still kept at arm’s length from the legislative process.
“Due to construction and COVID-19 public health rules, this special session will look very different from previous ones,” Kotek’s chief of staff, Lindsey O’Brien, wrote in an email sent to House lawmakers on Monday.
In an attached document, the speaker’s office said that, since construction in the Capitol’s wings will block lawmakers from their offices, they could plan to spend time in “a local hotel, returning home if you live close by, or working remotely from another location” while waiting for a floor session.
The document also said legislative staffers are discouraged from attending, since “additional people in the building also increases the risk of COVID-19 exposure.”
But the guidance contained no notion of what would be required of the public, other than the expectation that everyone in the building be masked, in line with state regulations.
A spokesman for Senate President Peter Courtney said early Tuesday the notion of the public being allowed into the session was an “unfounded” rumor. But hours later, Courtney and Kotek’s offices jointly answered questions about the session, saying they’d consulted with public health and safety officials about how to carry it out.
“Ultimately, they believe a safe legislative session can be held by following existing OSHA and OHA rules aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks,” the response said. “While members of the public can enter the Capitol and watch the proceedings at video stations similar to the special sessions of 2020, they are encouraged to participate remotely by streaming the session proceedings online.”
State Rep. Christine Drazan, the House Republican leader, signaled Tuesday she was preparing for the session to be open.
“There have been no conversations around any changes to the current status of the building with me, and we typically discuss these things,” she said.
But Drazan also questioned how interested the public would be in a session that could involve a lot of waiting. Lawmakers must pass redistricting bills altering the state’s legislative and congressional maps by Sept. 27 if they hope to have any say in the matter. But deep disagreements — particularly over how the state should add a sixth congressional seat — could result in an impasse that prevents anything from moving.
“If it is a fair map, we’ll expedite that thing. We’ll get it out of the building,” said Drazan, referring to her party’s ability to suspend chamber rules to fast-track bills to passage. “The downside is that the congressional maps aren’t fair. [Democrats] have refused to consider changes to their gerrymandered congressional map.”