Lt. Governor Randy McNally has decided that effective Monday new protocols will go into effect that will allow greater access to the Senate areas within the Cordell Hull Building.
The revised protocols are due to the increased availability of the vaccine and the overall decline in the spread of COVID-19, according to a late-day email Friday from McNally’s chief of staff addressed to Senate members and staff.
Access to the Cordell Hull Building (CHB), home to the legislature, and the State Capitol has been under strict COVID-19 protocols for nearly a year. In addition to the removal of seating for the general public, the cafeteria has been off limits as has the first floor Senate hearing rooms and 7th floor Senate offices.
The public has been permitted access to House hearing rooms all along, inasmuch as the covered seating to maintain six-foot distancing could accommodate.
To prevent the public’s access to locations above the first floor, CHB elevators were programmed to prohibit movement without a legislative or staff member badge. Additionally, stairwells were locked from the inside, also requiring a badge to open the door once inside the stairwell.
These COVID-related limitations to the public’s access are additive to those inherent in the design, particularly of the committee rooms, as The Tennessee Star reported as the renovations to CHB were nearing completion and the legislature was preparing to relocate from the War Memorial Building.
The new protocols apply to the 7th Floor of Cordell Hull Building, Senate Hearing Room I and Senate Floor Sessions, according to the email guidance.
– Members of the public will be admitted to the Cordell Hull Building using the main entrance on Rep. John Lewis Way (formerly Fifth Avenue), and will have elevator access to the 7th Floor.
– Until elevator programming is adjusted, General Assembly staff will assist the public with elevator access to the 7th floor. Once programming is complete, elevator access for the public will be open.
– Members of the public are encouraged not to enter a member’s office without an appointment.
– Senate Hearing Room I will be open to the public with limited seating. Social distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained and enforced.
– The public may access the Capitol through the tunnel for Senate Floor Sessions. One elevator will be designated for members only for session. The Senate Gallery is open with limited seating available for the public and reserved seating for media. Social distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained.
– The area outside the Senate Chamber is reserved for Senate staff.
– The 8th Floor and 7th floor Senate Conference Rooms remain closed.
– There shall be no Days on the Hill, group meetings or tours.
– Appropriate CDC facial coverings are required in the Senate facilities of the Cordell Hull Building and the Capitol, including the tunnel.
– Individuals with 2021 Photo Identification Badges issued by the General Assembly may access the Cordell Hull Building through the entrance on 6th Avenue.
– The north elevator is reserved for members and staff, no public use.
– Committee chairs may choose in-person or remote testimony for their committee meetings.
A qualifying statement that McNally’s revised protocols “are subject to modification at any time as needed” concluded the revised protocols.
The email describing the change in Senate access protocol marks just about two months since a letter was sent in early January to all 132 state legislators, requesting that “no restrictions be placed on peaceful public access in taxpayer funded legislative buildings while decisions are being made on the public’s business.”
The letter was signed by 46 individuals representing 30 groups, including the Tennessee Firearms Association, Tennessee Republican Assembly, Tennessee Legislative Report Card, Campaign to End Civil Asset Forfeiture, Cross County Patriots, Tennessee Conservative Union, several TEA Party, libertarian and Republican Party groups, Tennessee Eagle Forum and Dr. Carol Swain.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.