INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers won't be compelled to wear face masks as they meet next week at the Statehouse for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic was first sweeping across the country in March.
The Legislature's organizational meeting set for Tuesday will occur as the state's rates for COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and newly confirmed infections have soared in recent weeks and a statewide mask mandate issued by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has been in effect since July.
But the Republican-dominated Legislature isn't ready to require mask wearing among the 100 House members and 50 senators. A joint House-Senate committee voted Thursday against a proposal from a Democratic lawmaker for rules enforcing a face mask policy.
"At this point, we are making it a strong encouragement and we're still discussing the issue of how we can control the mandate of that," said Republican Rep. Matt Lehman of Berne, the committee's chairman and House majority floor leader.
Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis pointed to the state's recent 10% average rate of tests confirming COVID-19 infections as a concern that needs to be treated more seriously.
"I simply don't want to turn our Organization Day into a super spreader," DeLaney said. "Do the math — if you've got 100 people in the room, you can guess as well as I can that at least a few are going to be positive."
Both the House and Senate plan to meet Tuesday inside their Statehouse chambers, with many members sitting in the public balconies in order to provide greater distancing. During those meetings, legislators to be sworn into office and they will formally elect leaders.
Lawmakers are scheduled to return in early January to begin their 2021 session. The House plans to then start holding its floor sessions and committee meetings in the conference rooms and auditorium of a state office building that are larger than those available in the Statehouse, which first opened in 1888. The Senate plans to continue meeting inside the Statehouse.
Democratic Sen. J.D. Ford of Indianapolis said he was worried that no policies have been discussed on what will happen if legislators are infected with the coronavirus and what would cause a suspension of the legislative session as he's seen several lawmakers walking around the Statehouse without masks.
"That puts visitors at risk, that puts staff members at risk, lobbyists at risk, the press at risk, and so I've got some great concern," Ford said.
State employees must wear masks in the Statehouse. However, Holcomb has indicated that the House and Senate will such decisions for the legislative branch, saying in September "They rule their own roost."