With COVID Cases Dropping, Public Can Now Visit Washington Senate Galleries on a Limited Basis


OLYMPIA — Members of the public will soon be allowed in the galleries of the state Senate chambers during floor debate.

As COVID-19 cases decline across Washington, the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to allow up to 12 members of the public in galleries, including press, after a negative test. The current Senate operations plan only allows the press into the galleries to minimize possible transmission of the virus.

Members of the public can begin visiting the galleries on Friday. Those who do can do get a spot on a first-come, first-served basis. One gallery will be reserved for press, and one will be reserved for the public, with six people allowed on either side.

They must receive a negative COVID-19 test result before entering, and on-site, self-administered tests will be available.

Members of the public will walk through a metal detector to get into the galleries. It's a different device than the handheld metal detector wands that Secretary of the Senate Sarah Bannister said has been used in previous years.

Inside, the public must remain socially distant and wear face masks.

The public has not been able to access galleries in either chamber since the 2020 session as the Legislative Building was closed to the public for all of last year's session.

As omicron cases soared earlier this year, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed operations plans that were mostly remote, only allowing a handful of members on the floor and restricting gallery access to the public.

As cases have decreased, both the House and the Senate have begun to loosen restrictions.

Earlier this month, the Senate recently doubled the number of lawmakers allowed on the floor during debates from 15 to 30.

The House on Monday added a number of members to the floor as well, now up to 27 members during debates, according to Bernard Dean, chief clerk of the House. Discussions on other changes to their plan, including allowing members of the public into the galleries, are ongoing, Dean said.

The Senate also will allow small in-person meetings of lawmakers or staff in Senate facilities, assuming all members test negative, wear masks and social distance.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, called the changes passed Tuesday in the Senate "a good step forward," but asked that the committee consider other measures, such as allowing lawmakers to remove masks or wear masks other than KN-95s when they are speaking on the floor.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said given the length of time senators are on the floor, wearing KN-95s is "the best way to go."

The legislative session is scheduled to end March 10.