Legislature kicks off session against the backdrop of COVID-19 uncertainty
No one said being a state legislator was easy.
For a new crop of lawmakers sworn into the Kansas House and Senate on Monday, a whole host of challenges await in a session that will be like none before it.
For Sen. Rick Kloos, R-Topeka, those challenges included trying to figure out how to navigate the labyrinthine Statehouse building to track down his office and other key locations.
"I'm trying to find my way around," Kloos said with a chuckle.
Much as lawmakers like Kloos will need to quickly figure out the landscape of the 159-year-old Statehouse building, legislators are set to chart a course through the COVID-19 pandemic for the upcoming session, which got underway Monday, despite uncertainty about where they are headed.
The normal pomp and circumstance of swearing-in day, replete with ceremony and celebration for first-term lawmakers and veterans alike, was muted.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, guests were limited in the Kansas House and the 125-member body swore in legislators in batches of 10 in an effort to minimize the number of members in close contact at once.
The floor of the Kansas Senate, meanwhile, was a revolving door of activity as guests for new members cycled in and out as their loved ones were sworn in, although most of the members were on the floor.
In both chambers, the excitement that usually exists was also met with anxiety about whether a COVID-19 outbreak was just around the corner.
The two chambers are proceeding somewhat differently in light of the virus.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, outlined a host of mitigation efforts in recent weeks. Media and members of the public aren't allowed in the chamber at all, with members strewn throughout the gallery in order to ensure spacing between legislators.
On the Senate side, members received communication from Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, on Sunday evening, said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa.
Masterson's office said measures will include social distancing, with chairs spaced 6 feet apart, as well as changes to the calendar to limit time on the floor.
But Sykes said she was disappointed the protocols weren't as extensive as those undertaken in the House. Both chambers, she said, didn't implement all the suggested tactics recommended by consultants from the University of Kansas Health System.
"I would like to see more," she said. "I think the House had a much more comprehensive plan."
Masterson defended their plans, saying they were in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's a virus. You don't know who has the flu or who has the cold," he said. "We are doing a really great job, I think."
At least a handful of members used the COVID-19 rapid testing available to lawmakers near the Statehouse, which Masterson found encouraging. The testing effort will likely expand to include staff and media in the coming days and a physician will be on site for much of this week.
"If you're testing every few days then you can test asymptomatic people who don't know they're becoming contagious and actually separate them before they get to contagious," he said.
Mask wearing is optional in both chambers, although documents distributed by Ryckman's office said they were "strongly encouraged." Bins were placed with face masks at the entrances to both chambers, although some members still didn't wear them.
Others opted to wear face coverings while milling about the Statehouse but elected to shed them at their desk, even though members are seated in relatively close proximity.
Many family members and friends were maskless as well, including a group of Masterson's family members, although he noted that they were socially distant during the proceedings.
Kloos was one of those members wearing a mask and said he was optimistic that his colleagues were going to take the virus seriously.
"I think, for the most part, people are following protocols," he said. "You have got to think about others and not just yourself."
Sykes said Democrats would be wearing masks wherever they were in the building, including if they were holding meetings in their own office.
Sen. Richard Hilldebrand, R-Galena, didn't wear a mask on the floor and said lawmakers should have the freedom to choose.
"If people are comfortable wearing one and feel they need to wear one, then they should be able to do so," he said. "If people don't feel comfortable wearing one, then they shouldn't have to."
The virus won't stop the Legislature's work in the meantime, however. The schedule for both the House and Senate is in flux, although committees are set to dive in Tuesday on a host of policy issues ranging from the state's COVID-19 vaccination process to property taxes.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Masterson didn't mention the pandemic directly but expressed condolences to those who had lost family or friends to the virus.
“To those who are no longer with us, to those in our very chamber today who have recently lost someone close to them, please know we are thinking about you and praying for you,” Masterson said in his remarks.
He added that it was time for lawmakers to get to work on the difficult issues facing Kansas.
"We start off with a clean slate," he said.