The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 15, 2021 1:00 am

Vaccination bill highlights Statehouse split on masks

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Dozens of people testifying on a vaccination bill flouted the Statehouse mask requirement this week – even causing others who wanted to speak on the bill to leave because of health concerns.

That situation is causing legislative leaders to work with Gov. Eric Holcomb and Capitol Police about how to make the process and building safe.

But no one seems to know what – if any – penalty there is in the building for refusing to wear a mask.

“We don't want to be ejecting people from the Statehouse in any way shape or form,” Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said Thursday.

Senate Bill 74 was heard by the Senate Pensions and Labor Committee and would allow people to refuse employer-mandated vaccines for reasons of personal “conscience.”

Federal law already allows exemptions for medical conditions and religion.

Many of those who testified against the bill initially wore masks when entering the building – where police and security are stationed – but took them off in the halls, committee room and bathroom.

Bray said they were told by staff they needed to wear them, but he said interns and staff are not the people to enforce the rule.

He also said people were congregating in the testimony room – which is supposed to largely be empty – and talking loudly when they disagreed with what the person testifying was saying.

Bray said the committee chairman had trouble keeping order from a separate room. Some committees have the members in one room and the public in another room testifying virtually.

He, House Speaker Todd Huston and Holcomb are discussing possible changes – including having Capitol Police in the rooms to enforce the rules.

Holcomb was asked about the issue Wednesday but he didn't have a solution.

“What I'm concerned about is folks will seek to shut down or repel or push away others who want to have a contribution in this very process because they want to be safe,” he said. “And so we'll be making sure that we are working with the leaders to make sure they have what they need to ensure the legislative process can be conducted safely.”

Bray said he hopes people will comply if police make a direct request.

No one could articulate a penalty for a person not wearing a mask in the Statehouse.

The requirement in the government center has been around since even before the statewide facial covering order.

But the buildings have been largely empty with many state employees working from home.

The beginning of session has brought people back to their offices, while also drawing the public to testify.

Bray said those concerned about coming to the building can still send emails, call legislators and submit written testimony to have their voice heard.

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