Grab Your Mask and Notepad, We’re Headed Back to California’s State Capitol

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The best part about returning to the pandemic-besieged state Capitol is that the elected officials are so unused to seeing us reporters after more than a year that some are occasionally extra chatty. The bad part is that the masks make it harder to eavesdrop on the rest of them.

Much like the rest of the state — which is navigating ever-changing covid rules, such as whether vaccinated people should wear masks or how far apart schoolkids should be (3 vs. 6 feet) — the building is subject to a tangle of shifting requirements. All of us — the lawmakers, their staff, the press and the tourists — are making mistakes.

When I reemerged at the Capitol to cover recent budget negotiations, I immediately committed a cardinal sin of pandemic life: I shook the hand of an Assembly member. It’s one of those mistakes you immediately realize you’ve made, like calling your teacher “Mom.”

Thankfully, she brushed it off but returned after our conversation to wordlessly offer me a squirt from a giant bottle of hand sanitizer. Probably best practices for anyone talking to the press.

Resurfacing from our pandemic isolation can get confusing. Most California workplaces no longer require vaccinated workers to be masked, in accordance with the June 17 guidance from the state’s Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board. The Capitol, where 85% of members and staffers are fully vaccinated — compared with about 61% of eligible Californians — also dropped its mask mandate for vaccinated employees.

That is, until an outbreak erupted in early July, when nine Assembly staffers — eight from the same office — tested positive. Four of them say they were fully vaccinated.

That’s a lot of bad luck, considering so-called breakthrough cases are said to be rare. According to the California Department of Public Health, there have been 10,430 covid cases out of 20.4 million fully vaccinated people as of July 7, a rate of 0.051% of vaccinated people getting sick.

Some post-vaccination infections are to be expected, said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who chairs the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco. And once a positive test pops up, you’re bound to find more. In this situation, testing likely uncovered asymptomatic cases that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, she said.

In a letter to staff on July 9, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate leader Toni Atkins implored everyone to get vaccinated. But, so far, inoculation isn’t required, even though there should “absolutely be a vaccine mandate” for the Capitol, Bibbins-Domingo said.

Security guards provide disposable masks for California State Capitol visitors who forget theirs. It’s easy to forget: The building’s policy recently changed after a covid-19 outbreak in the state Assembly. (Rachel Bluth / KHN)

Meanwhile, masks are back for anyone who works in the building, and unvaccinated employees must be tested in the basement twice a week.

Visitors face all the security measures you’d expect for anyone entering a government building (metal detectors and TSA-esque bag screenings). They are advised to wear masks with at least two layers of protection and must submit to a temperature check by security guards, who, through thin slits in plexiglass barriers, aim thermometer guns at visitors’ foreheads.

As I entered the building one recent morning, a gaggle of tourists loitered outside, staring at their phones trying to figure out what to do — like people hoping to get into an exclusive new club. They had all forgotten their masks and didn’t know whether they could get in, but security guards were more than happy to hand out garden-variety surgical masks.

Even “Bacteria Bear,” the 800-pound bronze legacy of the Schwarzenegger administration, is masked. However, it’s not fully business-as-usual for the bronze statue, which guards the entrance to the governor’s offices. He’s roped off with strict warnings not to touch. (In hindsight, maybe officials should never have invited hundreds of germy tourists to rub their hands all over him.)

Some semblance of normalcy is creeping back into the building. Small groups of tourists roam the halls to look at exhibits, state police guard the exits and give directions to lost reporters (me), and a handful of staffers shuffle between committee rooms and offices.

Though it’s much quieter than usual, and most lawmakers aren’t allowing drop-in visits by constituents, the actual work of legislating doesn’t look much different.

Lawmaking is a social endeavor. Masked Assembly members huddled together to pass budget bills in the last few minutes before leaving town for summer break. (Rachel Bluth / KHN)

Lawmakers left town Thursday for a month for summer break, and in the past few days have rushed to pass a few dozen budget bills and wrap up committee hearings. As they deliberated, close talking, back-patting and corner huddling were common. But this time they were masked.

California’s state Capitol was not built for a pandemic. Members’ desks are arranged with little separation between them, and though the ceilings are high (and ornately decorated), airflow is minimal.

“This building isn’t well ventilated,” said Assembly member Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa), who chairs the Assembly Health Committee. “It’s like an airplane in here; you can’t even open the windows.”

The novelty of working around people again is producing strange experiences. I’m used to pestering lawmakers and their staffers for interviews, but in the back of the Assembly’s mint-green chamber, where reporters have always been quarantined regardless of the pandemic, a member came up to me to introduce herself. It’s been so long since she’s seen a reporter back here, she said, she just had to come over and say hello.

The state Assembly chamber is beautiful but not well-ventilated, lawmakers say. Legislators packed the room on their last day before summer recess. (Rachel Bluth / KHN)

The state Senate chamber, which favors red and pink, feels a little more covid-cautious than the lower house down the hall. Although state officials have repeatedly said there will be no “vaccine passports” required in California, they’re alive and well for reporters trying to get near senators.

Along with our credentials, journalists need passes, printed on purple paper with the Senate seal, to get onto the chamber floor. The Capitol nurse distributes the passes only after reporters provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative covid test.

In the Senate’s smaller and more intimate chamber, there’s plexiglass around the dais up front, a few members’ desks and a microphone near the back.

And in the rear of the chamber, a lone “press only” desk is surrounded in clear plastic on three sides. I’m beginning to suspect they think we may be more virulent than the general public.

Lawmakers fist-bump on the floor of the state Senate on Thursday. The coronavirus hasn’t put an end to the chummy way laws get made.(Rachel Bluth / KHN)

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.