The Oregon Capitol building in Salem. Photo: Chas Hundley

This year’s legislative session will be the first full session since COVID-19 caused the state to go into lockdown, and as a result of the pandemic the Legislature on January 7 released its 2021 safety plan, which aims to ensure transparency and public participation. 

A joint statement from the offices of House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Springfield) said the goal of the plan is to balance safety with the completion of Legislature business while allowing public participation, input, and review of proposed legislation.

The Capitol Operations Safety Plan is the product of a three-month review of all building operations by nonpartisan Capitol staff, including members of the Capitol Press Association and the Oregon Capitol Club, as well as legislators and their staffers, the statement says. 

The 81st Legislative Assembly convened Monday to conduct 'Organizational Days," a procedural event where legislators are sworn into their new terms of office, bills are introduced, and committee membership is announced.

The 2021 session begins on Jan. 19 and committees are meeting remotely with floor sessions being limited only to necessary business. Daily floor sessions are set to begin in April with limited public access. If public health conditions improve officials will expand the number of people allowed to the building in accordance with health safety protocols, including mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing. 

Marion County currently is one of 23 Oregon counties in the extreme risk category for the spread of COVID-19. The presiding officers will work with Republican and Democratic caucus leaders to determine when to expand in-person work at the Capitol. 

“We’ve never seen a legislative session like this before,” Courtney said. “Legislative staff worked hard to come up with a plan that is safe and transparent. Every session, Oregonians make their voices heard on issues they care about. We need these voices. This plan will make the legislative process more accessible to Oregonians across the state.”

Kotek said the operations safety plan ensures the 2021 legislative session will be transparent and include strong public participation.

“This plan will require an unprecedented level of coordination and communication to make this session a success for the people of Oregon,” she said. “As we work toward a more equitable recovery from the pandemic and other crises, it will be critical to hear as much as possible from Oregonians in every community.”

Safety for Oregon’s legislators in Salem has become a top priority, especially in light of recent events at the U.S. Capitol, and after a video was obtained by news media organizations via a public records request that appears to show Oregon State Rep. Mike Nearman (R-Independence) open a door into the capitol during a Dec. 21 protest. The right-wing protest turned violent, with members of the press and police allegedly assaulted by some of those protesting the closed-door special legislative session.

In an internal Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) memo, the agency said that armed protests are planned for all 50 state capitols to protest President-Elect Joe Biden’s assumption of power when he is sworn in on Jan. 20, ABC reported