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The doors of the Senate shall be open again

The Senate Education Committee meets on March 16, 2020, amid a ban on public attendance in the Cordell Hull Building (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate is reopening to the public after shutting down most access during the pandemic. According to a Tennessee Lobbyists Association memo, the upper chamber is dropping most of the restrictions it had imposed when COVID-19 struck last year. The House restrictions were never as wide-ranging to begin with, and most its mitigation efforts were lifted last month.

Here is the memo outlining the Senate changes:

TLA Members,

We were notified of the following changes this evening:

Due to increased vaccine availability and the overall decline in the spread of COVID -19, Lt. Governor McNally will be implementing revised building protocols beginning Monday, March 8. These protocols apply to the 7th Floor of Cordell Hull Building, Senate Hearing Room I and Senate Floor Sessions:

1. Members of the public will be admitted to the Cordell Hull Building using the main entrance on Rep. John Lewis Way and will have elevator access to the 7th Floor.

2. 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.

3. Members of the public are encouraged not to enter a member’s office without an appointment.

4. Senate Hearing Room I will be open to the public with limited seating. So-cial distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained and enforced.

4. The public may access the Capitol through the tunnel for Senate Floor Sessions. One elevator will be designated for members only for session.

5. 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.

6. The area outside the Senate Chamber is reserved for Senate staff.

7. The 8th Floor and 7th floor Senate Conference Rooms remain closed.

8. There shall be no Days on the Hill, group meetings or tours.

9. Appropriate CDC facial coverings are required in the Senate facilities of the Cordell Hull Building and the Capitol, including the tunnel.

10. Individuals with 2021 Photo Identification Badges issued by the General Assembly may access the Cordell Hull Building through the entrance on 6th Avenue.

11. The north elevator is reserved for members and staff, no public use.

12. Committee chairs may choose in-person or remote testimony for their committee meetings.

The protocols are subject to modification at any time.

Step 1: Make all the House GOP meetings secret

Rep. Chris Todd (R-Jackson) makes the motion to close all House Republican Caucus meetings to the public and the press on Nov. 24, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Before the House Republican Caucus could go about electing its leaders this week, Rep. Chris Todd of Jackson stood to make a motion for all further GOP meetings to be closed to the public and the media.

There was no debate about the need for blanket secrecy. And fittingly, the members took a vote via secret ballot. The motion passed 56-11.

The question of whether to keep caucus meetings open has been discussed within the House GOP for years. When they were in the minority, Republicans complained bitterly that the media ignored their meetings and pronouncements. Once they gained a majority, however, members quickly moved to shut down access. Matters have been complicated by Republicans gaining a supermajority in the chamber, because it means any caucus decision could easily carry over as the action of the House as a whole.

Senate Republican Caucus rules require meetings featuring the equivalent of a quorum to be open to the public.