For The Record

State House members to return to Gold Dome with masks, COVID testing

By: - October 21, 2021 7:03 pm

Face masks, social distancing and regular COVID-19 testing kept the 2021 legislative session rolling so far. That strategy will continue for next month’s special session. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder (file photo)

The process of law-making will continue to look a little different when state legislators return to the Gold Dome next month to draw new district maps.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, sent a memo to the 180 state representatives on Thursday saying face masks and routine testing will still be required, as lawmakers convene for a third time since the pandemic abruptly ended last year’s session.

Lawmakers will gather at the state Capitol starting Nov. 3 to redraw lines for congressional, state Senate and State House seats.

“In accordance with the CDC guidelines at the time the decision had to be made to prepare for session, masks must be worn by all Members and House staff while present in the House Chamber, the House Gallery, and any committee meeting,” Ralston wrote in the memo.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged face masks indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission since late July. Overall, COVID-19 cases are on the decline in Georgia after a delta drove a surge rivaling last winter’s peak.

State representatives will continue to spread out across three areas at the Capitol to stay socially distanced, including in the gallery where members of the public would normally sit. They must also take routine saliva-based COVID-19 tests, regardless of their vaccination status.

Ralston has been a stickler for rules, often using the bully pulpit to remind lawmakers of the consequences for not following them. When one lawmaker refused, he was removed from the chamber and lost access to his office space.

Beauty queens, football players and other usual honorees, as well as the pages who help deliver messages to lawmakers, will still not make an appearance in the chamber, although faith leaders from across the state will continue to come and give a morning devotional.

The House safety protocols prompted kudos from across the aisle.

“Memo from Georgia House leadership just in: testing and masks will be mandated for members during the upcoming special session. Thank you, @SpeakerRalston, for continuing to ensure safety,” state Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, tweeted.

Senate leadership, meanwhile, has not yet issued similar guidelines for senators and staff for the special session.

Face masks and routine testing were required in both chambers earlier this year. In the Senate, three senators tested positive in the first days of the session, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan.

Senate staff did recently send out safety protocols for reporters, who will be allowed back into the press box after spending the last two sessions watching from above in the gallery. Members of the press who are unvaccinated are “strongly encouraged” but not required to wear a face mask, per the guidelines distributed last week.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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