State Capitols Grapple With Mask Mandates Amid Coronavirus

A Democratic state senator in Ohio walked out of a hearing last week when he saw that dozens of spectators in the room were maskless and sitting close together.

“I saw danger,” said the senator, Cecil Thomas, who added that he worries about infection risk in part because his daughter has a severely compromised immune system.

Mr. Thomas returned to his office, where he watched — but could not participate in — the rest of the hearing.

Nearly a year into the coronavirus crisis, with no national standard for legislating during a pandemic, lawmakers in state capitals around the country are grappling with how to carry out a new season of sessions. A partisan pattern has emerged, but there remains a patchwork of shifting, inconsistent rules about where to meet, how the public can take part, and what to do about masks.

In at least 28 states, masks are required on the floors of both legislative chambers, according to a New York Times survey of legislatures in every state; 17 of the 28 states are controlled by Democrats. Legislatures in at least 18 states, including 15 that are Republican-controlled, do not require masks on the floor in at least one chamber. In the three state legislatures where party control is divided, one is requiring masks and two are not.

In Minnesota, masks are required in the Democratic-held House, but the Senate’s Republican majority blocked a proposal to require masks in the upper chamber. Senators are allowed to participate in sessions remotely. “Part of it is simply respecting those that may have a different point of view,” said Senator Paul Gazelka, the Republican leader.

Similar partisan divides have appeared across the country. In Ohio, Republican lawmakers have knocked down motions by Democrats to require masks in the Statehouse and allow remote participation. So, as Mr. Thomas’s colleagues heard public comments on a bill to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which could allow lawmakers to veto the governor’s public health orders, Mr. Thomas was listening in his office, unable to ask questions.

Other Republican-led legislatures, like Missouri’s, have also stopped short of requiring mask-wearing. The Arizona House of Representatives held two swearing-in ceremonies earlier this year: one for legislators who would wear masks, and the other for those who would not. Republican leaders in South Dakota, which has the country’s second-highest rate of known coronavirus cases, have required masks in the Senate but have merely encouraged them in the House. Legislators in both chambers are allowed to attend and vote remotely.

With no shortage of pressing issues facing state lawmakers — budget shortfalls, economic relief and redistricting, to name a few — many rituals of state government have been disrupted by the pandemic.

At least 26 governors, both Democrats and Republicans, moved their annual State of the State addresses online or gave them in locations that allowed more distancing than legislative chambers do. Members of the public in 22 states have been barred from Capitol buildings. Legislatures in 27 states have allowed lawmakers to attend sessions and cast their votes from home or from other locations in Capitol buildings.

And lawmakers of both parties have assembled in conditions that were unimaginable a year ago.

In Maryland, a labyrinth of plexiglass barriers separated masked lawmakers on the Senate floor as they returned to work last month. The New Hampshire legislature held its organizing meetings outdoors. In Illinois, the House of Representatives has conducted business at a convention center rather than at the Capitol. And in California, the Assembly moved its opening ceremony to the Golden 1 Center, the home arena of the Sacramento Kings of the N.B.A.

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