Virus Spread Closes State Capitol To Public

by Scott Carter

OKLAHOMA CITY – The state Capitol building will be closed to the general public during the Covid-19 outbreak, state lawmakers leaders said Monday. Government services, however, would continue.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Ada, Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City and Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said access to the capitol would be limited to lawmakers, their staffs, members of the press and some state employees. The lawmakers announced the closure during a late Monday afternoon press conference.

In addition to the closure, both the House and the Senate said they were suspending their page program after this week. That program brings high school students from across the state to the Capitol for a week to study government. The students also work as pages for members.

“This isn’t a panic,” Treat said. “We are taking this seriously. We are committed to protecting our staff and our members and the public.”

House Minority Floor Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said House members would also be allowed to vote by proxy on some legislation. “We feel it’s incumbent on this body to set a good example,” she said. Allowing a proxy vote on some legislation is a marked charge for the House. Longtime rules have required a member to be physically in the chamber to cast a vote.

Echols, the majority floor leader, said proxy votes would only be allowed on certain bills. “Nobody knows that the world will look like for sure one week from now,” he said. “This is an extraordinary measure.”

While the second session of the 57th Oklahoma Legislature is required to adjourn sine die (Latin for ‘without a day’) on May 29th, new rules established this week will allow both the House and the Senate to adjourn indefinitely until ‘the call of the chair.’ This means lawmakers can temporarily stop the session for an extended period of time.

Both McCall and Treat said the legislature would focus on developing and passing a budget for the next fiscal year. Treat said a great deal of that work could be done without being at the capitol. “We want to be able to address taking care of peoples business while doing it in a way that is safe to public and to members,” he said.

With infection rates from the coronavirus rising in Oklahoma, the legislature’s action is the latest in a series of emergency measures that public officials hope will ‘flatten the curve’ and reduce the number of those infected.

Across the country schools have been shut down, public events cancelled, and some business have closed. On Monday, President Donald Trump urged states with evidence of community transmission of the virus to close schools and other places where people gather. The president said the outbreak could last until July or August and warned that the county could face a recession.

McCall said lawmakers would finish their work and would be accessible to their constituents.  “We are not closing the government down,” he said. “We do not want the public to worry. Governmental services will continue.  Regardless of what the challenges are, we have contingencies plans in place to see that a budget is passed.”

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