Push to reopen Nevada Statehouse grows as staff offered vaccines


David Calvert / The Nevada Independent via AP

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during the first day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

Sun, Feb 28, 2021 (2 a.m.)

CARSON CITY — People who work in the Nevada Legislature were offered access to their first rounds of coronavirus vaccines late this week, almost one month into the 2021 legislative session.

The Statehouse remains mostly closed to the public, except for lawmakers, staff and a small group of reporters who are permitted inside. Unlike typical sessions, lobbyists, activists and members of the public can’t testify in front of committees in-person, buttonhole lawmakers in the hallways or wait outside their offices.

Republican leaders in the Democrat-controlled Legislature have said they want to open the doors of the building to the public. But Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Leader Nicole Cannizzaro have urged caution. The Democratic leaders have not introduced formal plans to reopen the building in any capacity, but they said Thursday that they hoped to reopen about halfway through the four-month legislative session.

“We are discussing next steps now that many staff are starting to be vaccinated and are working off the assumption that vaccinations could have us on track for the next phase of limited reopening in early April,” they said in a jointly-issued statement.

The Legislature is confronting the question of how to operate during a pandemic as Nevada’s months-long coronavirus surge is subsiding. Gov. Steve Sisolak has set a course toward gradually loosening restrictions on schools, casinos, restaurants and churches. The number of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations reported daily has steadily declined and 13% of the state population has received their first vaccine doses.

A growing chorus of groups from across the political spectrum are also demanding lawmakers change their procedures to ensure members of the public can participate. On Monday, conservative and liberal-leaning groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nevada Policy Research Institute joined together to write a public letter blasting how the Legislature has limited public participation.

“The processes in place for public participation are grossly insufficient and have severely limited the public’s ability to make their voices heard,” they wrote.

Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer cited the letter on Tuesday and urged Democratic leaders to make plans to reopen the building.

“The parity does not exist between coming into this building and testifying on a bill as it does testifying by video conference system or phone call,” the Minden Republican said. “It’s beholden upon us to start coming up with some kind of a criteria that we can immediately go forward with to start allowing citizens into this building to testify on these important matters that are before us.”

In response, Cannizzaro called the pandemic “an impossible situation” and said her top priority was ensuring the safety of staff.

Throughout the country, almost 400 state lawmakers have reported testing positive for the virus, according to an ongoing tally by The Associated Press. Legislatures have navigated the pandemic in drastically different ways. Some, like Montana, have opted to hold everything in-person and not require masks, while others, like New Hampshire, began their legislative session with “drive-in” proceedings in a car park before transitioning to in-person voting at a sports complex this week.

The Nevada Independent reported on Wednesday that contact tracing had begun after a staff member had tested positive for the virus. The Legislative Counsel Bureau did not respond to questions about the case.

Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus, R-Wellington, said “it’s reasonable to say, ‘hey, let’s wait a couple weeks until everyone is vaccinated’ as opposed to opening right away,” she said.

Frierson said that while he understood some people’s frustration with not being able to enter the Legislature, he said the session is still very accessible for the public.

Members can public participate in committee meetings virtually by going to the Legislature’s website. They’ll then be sent an email with the meeting’s call-in information.

“I believe that we are having the most accessible session that we’ve ever had in Nevada, where folks in Clark County who couldn’t drive up here, couldn’t participate in person before, are able to have the same access, the same experience as everyone else,” Frierson said.

The Sun’s John Sadler contributing reporting to this story.

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