Overhead view of the Nevada Assembly on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 during the fifth day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.
People who work in the Nevada Legislature were offered access to their first rounds of coronavirus vaccines on Thursday, 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.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.