Politics

Omicron may keep public out of Oregon Capitol for legislative session

By Sam Stites (OPB)
Jan. 10, 2022 1 p.m.

Top lawmakers say they’re alarmed by hospitalization projections for the new COVID-19 variant.

Senate and House leaders aren't sure whether the public will be allowed back inside the Capitol when lawmakers start their 2022 session in February.

Senate and House leaders aren't sure whether the public will be allowed back inside the Capitol when lawmakers start their 2022 session in February.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The arrival of a new wave of COVID-19 infections driven by the omicron variant has Oregon’s top lawmakers concerned about health and safety as they prepare to convene in Salem the first week of February.

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Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek released a statement last week acknowledging that the latest projection from Oregon Health & Science University that the omicron variant is cause for alarm.

According to Dr. Peter Graven, director of OHSU’s Office of Advanced Analytics, Oregon could see as many 1,650 hospitalizations due to the virus by the end of January.

On Friday, 625 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The state’s COVID burden peaked in September with around 1,200 hospitalizations.

Related: Oregon announces long-awaited crisis care standards for hospitals as COVID-19 numbers rise

“(Kotek and Courtney) are continuing to consult infectious disease doctors and public health experts to determine the best ways to keep Oregonians safe while ensuring strong public participation in the legislative process this session,” the lawmakers said in their written statement.

Legislative committee meetings scheduled this week for lawmakers to hear testimony on topics likely to take priority in the monthlong short session will be held virtually, as they have throughout much of the pandemic.

Training sessions scheduled next week for lawmakers and staff will also take place virtually.

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The statehouse was closed to the public beginning in March 2020 and remained closed throughout the entire 2021 legislative session, with most staff working remotely in support of lawmakers who were still in the building.

The concept of remote work and wearing masks has been controversial topic in Salem.

Republicans have repeatedly argued the public has a constitutionally protected right to attend legislative proceedings in person. Lawmakers have also framed it as an equity issue for Oregonians who don’t have internet access.

Mike Nearman, a former state representative from Independence, was expelled from the House and pleaded guilty to illegally allowing armed protestors into the building during a special session in December 2020.

Some Republicans – such as Sen. Dallas Heard – have openly defied Capitol health and safety protocols by not wearing a mask.

Heard also consistently voted against bills he might’ve otherwise supported as a means of protesting the Capitol’s closure.

The Capitol reopened to the public in July 2021 shortly after last year’s legislative session ended, but construction kept most of the building closed through the end of the year.

The two special sessions held in 2021 to redraw the state’s political maps and to address emergency rent assistance were open to the public, but participation was historically low with new restrictions on which parts of the building members of the public and media could access.

Construction finished up last month, so lawmakers will regain access to their offices for the February session.

It remains unclear whether legislative leaders will impose any further restrictions due to the latest wave of infections.

Lawmakers approved a bill last year that will ensure remote access to legislative proceedings made necessary by the pandemic remain permanent moving forward. It took effect Jan. 1.

Kotek announced her resignation effective Jan. 21 to focus on her 2022 gubernatorial bid, meaning the House will need to vote on new leadership before any rules are imposed.

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