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story.lead_photo.caption This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19. - Photo by NIAID-RML via AP

Leaders for the Arkansas General Assembly and the secretary of state's office are proposing several coronavirus-related rules for the coming legislative session.

Lawmakers, staff members and the public are to wear face coverings, with some exceptions. For committee meetings, only people who are testifying on a bill listed on the agenda will be allowed into the committee room or the holding area outside it.

The proposed measures are to be temporary and in effect as long as Arkansas' public-health emergency declaration remains in place. The order, issued by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on March 11, was most recently extended for 60 days on Dec. 29, so it will last through Feb. 27.

If Hutchinson does cancel the executive order or allow it to expire, members of both chambers may vote to extend some or all of the provisions until the legislative session adjourns.

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Incoming Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he's been working on the rules in conjunction with House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, legislative aides and the secretary of state's office, for the past four months.

He said the proposed Senate rule would be presented Monday, and he did not foresee any issues with it being adopted and enforced among members.

"We've already had some training on the Senate end with our chairs and vice chairs, so a large part of the membership has already seen it," Hickey said.

The Senate always has the option to reprimand and discipline its members, but it would be a "one in a million chance" that disciplinary actions will need to be taken in enforcing these rules, he said.

A resolution laying out the rules for the House of Representatives is expected to go before the House Rules Committee on Tuesday, according to House spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo.

A draft of the resolution provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Thursday pertains only to committee meetings, though another resolution addressing rules for the House chamber is currently being drafted and is expected to include similar language requiring masks, Pond-Mayo said.

The proposed Senate rules apply to all Senate facilities, including the Senate chamber, offices and other work spaces.

In general, committee meetings are the only opportunity for members of the public, lobbyists and other officials to give public comments on bills before the measures are sent to the floor of either chamber, where debate is limited to lawmakers.

According to drafts of the proposed rules provided to the newspaper, lawmakers, aides and members of the public are required go through health screenings and temperature checks before entering state Capitol areas or the Multi-Agency Complex, commonly known as the Big Mac building.

Everyone must wear masks or cloth coverings over their mouths and noses, except when speaking directly into a microphone, are able to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others, are eating or drinking or have medical conditions or disabilities that prevent them from wearing face coverings.

To allow for maintaining a distance of 6 feet, people won't be permitted to enter a room once all available seating is filled.

Each committee room will have a designated seating area for agency personnel, the media and people who are testifying.

Members of the public, including lobbyists, who are testifying on a bill on the agenda that is not currently being discussed will be sent to a public comment holding room or "bullpen" area for that committee. Each area will have limited capacity with distanced seating.

The proposed rules also allow lawmakers and agency personnel to participate remotely because of virus infection or exposure, but don't mention any mechanism for the public to testify remotely.

Additionally, the proposed rules address committee agendas. To prevent crowded rooms and hallways, the public will receive a clear expectation of what bills will be heard on a given day.

When a bill is filed and assigned to a committee by each chamber, the bill will be placed on the referred items list for that committee. Bills pulled from the referred items list will be placed by the chairmen on the regular agenda to be considered on that date; on the consent agenda to be taken up at any time; or will be considered deferred either at the request of the sponsor or because the sponsor failed to appear.

The General Assembly is to convene at noon Monday.


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