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2021 Utah legislature begins with COVID-19 tests and extra police

COVID rapid testing
Posted at 1:41 PM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-19 19:47:21-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Instead of pomp and ceremony, there's plexiglass barriers and extra police.

The 2021 Utah State Legislature began under very unusual circumstances brought on by the threat of violent protests tied to the presidential inauguration and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"I would say it is great to see all your smiling faces, but I’ll settle for saying that it is great to see you masked up," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told his colleagues on the opening day.

Masks are mandated on the House floor, except when lawmakers are speaking, eating or drinking. Plexiglass barriers separate each desk in the packed House chamber. Lawmakers must take a COVID-19 rapid test before they step foot on the House floor.

In the Senate, there are no barriers but lawmakers do wear masks. The Utah State Capitol itself has been closed to the public since last year. Lawmakers had planned to re-open it for the session, but decided to extend the closure at least another week because of fears of violent protests.

The public instead is being encouraged to participate in committee hearings that are streaming online and contact lawmakers via email or text.

On Tuesday, Utah National Guard troops patrolled the building. The Utah Highway Patrol also had an increased presence.

"I call on protesters in our state and around our nation to practice their constitutional rights in a peaceful and orderly manner," said Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. "Abide by law and order. We will not tolerate violence and civil disorder."

In his remarks to his Senate colleagues, President Adams called the last year "unprecedented and historic." Legislative leadership is signaling that they plan to address issues brought on by 2020.

"During this session, let’s provide clear direction on what constitutes an emergency, what authority that triggers, and how long it should last. No emergency should usurp the power of the people," said Speaker Wilson, referring to a lengthy feud with the governor over the ongoing state of emergency due to COVID-19.

But lawmakers also plan to address other issues, including passing a budget that spends billions in taxpayer dollars. They have identified key issues including infrastructure improvements, affordable housing, expanding children's health insurance and mental health treatment, tax and regulatory reform, outdoor recreation opportunities and police reforms.

As of Tuesday, members had requested 1,081 bills. Of those, 325 have actually been numbered.

"I’d like to be able to have accomplished as a body, policies and appropriations that are going to help our working families to thrive," said House Minority Whip Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville.