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State panel endorses emergency rules for virus safety

Speaker of House proposes mandates on mask-wearing by Michael R. Wickline | January 14, 2021 at 6:56 a.m.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson gives the State of the State Speech to a virtual joint session of the General Assembly on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Arkansas House Rules Committee on Wednesday recommended the House approve emergency rules that would require representatives, staff members and others who access House properties to wear masks or other cloth that covers the mouth and nose, except under certain circumstances.

The covid-19 pandemic-related emergency rules proposed in House Resolution 1005 by Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, would allow exceptions for "participants in recognized debate or under special circumstances as authorized by the speaker."

The mask-wearing requirement would comply with state Department of Health recommendations and protect the health and safety of representatives, staff members and others who access House properties, according to HR 1005.

Shepherd said the proposed emergency rules would apply to the House floor and to the general operations of the House, and many of the proposed emergency rules are similar to how the House operated in the fiscal session last year.

Afterward, Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, said, "I am not really in favor of the mask thing.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

"To me, I haven't seen any scientific evidence that it prevents this virus at all," Gonzales said in an interview after he listened to the House Rules Committee consider the proposed emergency rules.

"But if it is the will of the House, I'll comply with the will of the House. I'll comply with the rules that are passed, even though I don't necessarily support what is going on," he said.

Gonzales said he hasn't decided whether he will vote against the proposed rules in the House.

Committee Chairman Les Eaves, R-Searcy, said in an interview, "I think we have to do everything we can to keep ourselves safe.

"A lot of us have family members back home that could be more susceptible to this than others, so I think wearing the mask and the social distancing and the plexiglass are all pretty good ideas," he said.

Shepherd told the House Rules Committee that the proposal also would require representatives, staff members and others on House property to participate in health screenings, submit to temperature checks and maintain appropriate distancing.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

He said the proposed rules also would allow for remote voting by representatives, "but you have to be actually on the Capitol server, basically the Wi-Fi here."

"You can't be at home. You can't be outside the Capitol grounds. You can be here and you can vote remotely," he said. "We have obtained a remote voting system. We have made the east gallery [above the chamber] available for members who want to spread out more, and that would allow them to be up there and be able to vote without having to worry about trying to tell somebody on the floor how to vote.

"If there is a roll call, that member would need to physically get to the chamber ... just to ensure that person is the person that is voting," Shepherd said. The proposed emergency rules would allow for limited direct proxy votes by representatives, he said.

The House Rules Committee also endorsed proposed rules for the committees amid the pandemic under House Resolution 1006 by Shepherd.

These proposed rules would require all individuals in House committee meetings and public comment holding rooms to wear masks or other cloth that covers mouth and nose at all times except when speaking directly into the microphone, keeping at least 6 feet from others or consuming food or drink. Another exception is for anyone who has a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering.

Shepherd said the proposed House committee rules are similar to those for Senate committees approved Monday.

Speaker of the House Rep. Matthew Shepherd, left, R-El Dorado, greats fellow House members Monday Jan. 11, 2021 at the state Capitol in Little Rock as he arrives to be sworn in on the first day of the legislative session. 
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)
Speaker of the House Rep. Matthew Shepherd, left, R-El Dorado, greats fellow House members Monday Jan. 11, 2021 at the state Capitol in Little Rock as he arrives to be sworn in on the first day of the legislative session. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)
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