Public to be allowed back in Washington Senate gallery

A limited number of members of the public who show a same-day negative COVID-19 test will be allowed to return to the galleries overseeing the Washington Senate floor, starting Friday.

The Democratic-majority Senate Facilities and Operations Committee met via Zoom on Tuesday to update the chamber’s COVID-19 protocols as lawmakers enter the final weeks of the 60-day legislative session that began Jan. 10.

The public has been allowed in the Capitol since last summer, but the public galleries overlooking the House and Senate chambers have been closed to all but credentialed media.

Under the updated plan unanimously approved by the committee, the south gallery will be designated for the media, and the north gallery will be open to the public, with a maximum capacity of six people on each side. The Senate is also adding a metal detector outside of the north gallery doors.

As the media has had to do throughout the session to gain access to the galleries, members of the public will have to do an on-site, self-administered test provided by the Senate and present a negative result. Masking and physical distancing are also required.

The Senate committee also approved allowing the resumption of in-person meetings between lawmakers and staff in offices and committee rooms, as long as everyone presents a negative COVID-19 test, is masked and remains distanced.

Floor votes will continue to be mostly conducted in a hybrid format with a majority of the chamber’s 49 members able to participate in-person, and some members participating remotely. A maximum of 30 lawmakers are currently allowed on the floor, 16 Democrats and 14 Republicans.

All members and staff who plan to be at the Capitol continue to be required to have a confirmed on-site negative test before entering Senate facilities, regardless of vaccination status.

On Monday night, the chief clerk of the House said the House Executive Rules Committee authorized an increase in the number of lawmakers allowed on the House floor to 27, up from 20, starting Wednesday. In the House, all members who want to be on the floor must show proof of vaccination, including a booster. And all House lawmakers and staff who work onsite are being tested three days a week.

As of Tuesday, the public was still not allowed in the House galleries, but the chief clerk said discussions about further changes to floor operations are ongoing.

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