INDIANAPOLIS – While Gov. Eric Holcomb has issued a face covering order for all Hoosiers in public, legislators are not required to abide by it.
As 150 lawmakers return to the Statehouse on Tuesday for Organization Day, officials in the House and Senate say masks will not be mandated for members. Separation of powers allows them to make their own rules.
But staffers and media in the chambers are required to wear face coverings.
The Legislative Continuity Committee has been meeting for months on how to have a safe 2021 session. It approved a report Thursday with no policy on masks. Instead it will be handled by leadership in each chamber.
Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, asked directly whether masks would be required to be worn my lawmakers, and Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne – third in command in the House – said members are “strongly encouraged” to wear them.
Lehman told The Journal Gazette after the meeting that masks will be addressed as part of the chamber's dress code. But the exact wording has not been finalized. For instance, men are currently required to wear jackets and ties on the floor.
But Delaney asked what happens if a member refuses, and there was no answer.
“I think we have not prepared very well and it's four days away,” he said. “We seem to be at a peak in terms of deaths, hospitalizations and the governor has changed his order.
“I do not want to turn our organization into a super spreader.”
Senate spokeswoman Molly Fishell said “Senate staff are required to wear masks, and senators are being asked to wear masks.”
Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, pointed out the dress code only covers being on the session floor – not in office space or committee rooms. He said a lawmaker can ask another legislator to wear a mask but the power dynamic for staffers makes that difficult.
Ford said he saw a Senate member without a mask hug a staffer.
Organization Day will be held in both chambers. Members will sit not only in their usual seats but take over the public gallery for social distancing. No legislation will be considered.
For the Senate, that set-up will continue for the session in 2021 – 30 members on the floor and 20 in the gallery. But the House will move its chambers to a large room in an adjacent government center building.
For committees, members will likely be in one room and the public testifying on a bill will be in another room. All events will be streamed live.
There will be no page program this year, in which hundreds of school children come to work in the Statehouse. And there likely will be no resolutions in which large groups come to the floor, such as sports teams.
Delaney pointed out the General Assembly has no testing regime; no plan for allowing members to vote virtually if sick or quarantined; and no clarity on masks.
But Lehman said the committee has done a good job making sure the public has access, that social distancing is occurring and that voting is secure.
“I think we will have a safe session,” he said. “We pray every day that this thing ends soon.”