COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.
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The State Legislature made a good first step on Monday to limit access to the Capitol to elected officials, credentialed media, and essential personnel. Our lawmakers should take the next step and suspend the current session. They need to maintain focus only on critical legislation directly pertaining to this health emergency or the budget. This move would be in the best interests of public health.
Social distancing is best strategy for virus containment
Social distancing has been identified as the most effective tool we have to minimize the impact of coronavirus. An easy way to maximize distance is to minimize the number of people in the room. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that meetings of more than 50 people be cancelled or postponed, while the White House has recommended limiting gatherings to 10 people or less. Locally, Oklahoma City, host to the Legislature, announced it would be limiting attendance at public meetings to 50 people.
On Tuesday, media reported that Senators and staff were asked to remain in their offices and await testing following notification that someone in the Senate has tested positive for COVID-19. There are roughly 75 and 150 people in the chambers when the Oklahoma Senate and House of Representatives meet, respectively. Committee meetings may have over 50 people as well, particularly when hearing controversial legislation or when a deadline for action approaches (the next such deadline is only a few weeks away, on April 9). There are several hundred staff for both the Legislature and the executive branch as well as state agency leaders, reporters, and public safety officers. House leadership indicated that the page program, which utilizes high school students, was going to remain active through this week. Many of these groups include members at the greatest risk for COVID-19. More importantly, all will need to be healthy and available to join in the response our state needs.
Democracy demands the Legislature not meet
Responsible Oklahomans are making sacrifices to maintain the recommended social distancing. As a result, few will be willing to risk their health and compromise their convictions to make their views on legislation known. Democracy requires an informed citizenry who can easily and readily engage with their government.
Monday’s Capitol closure and any future limiting of public meetings makes it increasingly difficult for Oklahomans and advocacy groups to have their voices heard to ensure that our government is operating in an open and transparent manner. Lawmakers on Tuesday discussed HB 3888, which would authorize teleconferencing and videoconferencing for meetings of public bodies until March 2021. This will serve as a barrier to engagement for many Oklahomans, especially those who lack internet connections. While we want to ensure that government bodies are able to function during crisis, democracy demands that we maintain full confidence in our government, are able to have a clear sense of their actions, and have opportunities for residents to speak out when they have concerns about their government operations.
In trying times, good leadership makes a big difference
At least 12 state legislatures have suspended or curtailed sessions this month, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others are likely to follow. Oklahoma’s Legislature has an opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of the uphill battle we face with this virus and to model the leadership we sorely need in our state and beyond.
During these unprecedented times, it’s important that our lawmakers maintain a laser-like focus on only critical legislation directly pertaining to this health emergency or fulfill its constitutionally mandated budget responsibilities.