When the Oregon Health Authority issued its weekly list of which of the state’s 373 zip codes that had the highest number of new COVID-19 cases, No. 1 caught the eye of Oregon politics.
97301. Salem. Including the Oregon State Capitol.
The zip code added 113 cases, giving the zip 3,075 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic hit Oregon last February. The good news is the Capitol’s zip code was the worst spot during a time when cases statewide have dropped by half.
But it was a reminder that there is an element of danger in bringing lawmakers, staff, police and journalists to the Capitol for the current Legislative session in the middle of a pandemic. The possible hazards have been on the minds of senators and representatives since the coronavirus arrived in Oregon in late February.
Oregon’s Legislature is slated to meet for 160 days, adjourning by July 1. But they will likely be in the Capitol itself for only a fraction of that time. The Legislature swore in new members at the Capitol on Jan. 11 and then held a short session of the House and Senate on Jan. 19.
But now meetings are via virtual platforms. Almost a year into the pandemic, the early flubs and glitches have mostly been smoothed out and dozens of meetings are held every day.
Legislative leaders say they will concentrate on meeting as boxes on each other’s computer screens instead of in-person for a while. Most bills have been introduced, while meetings and hearings can be held online. The system has many lawmakers complaining that watching someone testify about their experiences during COVID-19 is less compelling than in person. But champions of the distance system says it brings in a larger and more diverse group of voices compared to having to travel all the way to Salem to be given five minutes before a committee that’s already heard two dozen five-minute presentations.
But at some point the bills will have made their way through committees and those that are approved will head to the floor of each chamber for a vote. Then the bills go to the other chamber and the committee process begins anew. That means halfway through and at the end, for a bill to pass, legislators will have to return en masse to the Capitol.
Asked how many times lawmakers will have to come to Salem during the session, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said “I honestly don’t know.”
Legislation can make it through committee until deadlines can’t be stretched any further. “We can let the bills pile up until April,” Kotek said, venturing a guess.
There is hope among lawmakers that by spring, the virus infection rate will have continued on its downward path, more people will be vaccinated and gathering under the Capitol’s gray granite dome on Court Street might be less dangerous.
Many would like to see at least a limited reopening of the Capitol for public hearings. But for now, each trip to Salem carries with it some risk. Unlike states such as Colorado, so far Oregon legislators have not been given a preference in priority for early vaccination.
The fallout of COVID-19 crisis has required the House and Senate to convene in three short special sessions in June, August and December.
When it last met on Dec. 21, the infection rate in Oregon was four times higher than the end of the one-day second special session in mid-August. Unmasked and violent demonstrators broke into the Capitol, which has been closed to the public since the pandemic hit Salem last March.
Infections have been falling precipitously since about Jan. 15.
With strict masking and social distancing (honored by all but a few Republicans), there have been no reported COVID-19 infections among those of the 60 House and 30 Senate members who attended the special sessions. Like many states, Oregon’s lawmakers skew toward the older end of the age spectrum, with more than a few in their 60s and 70s.