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Masks are required for Massachusetts senators this week as the budget debate begins at the State House

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Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka's chief of staff reminded lawmakers that the Senate Reopening Working Group had sent around updated protocols on May 19.

More than two years into the pandemic, Senate leadership has recommended that senators limit the time they spend in the Senate Chamber for the debate on a $49.7 billion state budget plan this week as a steady stream of COVID-19 exposures collides with the busiest time of the legislative calendar.

Senators got word Monday that five people who worked in the State House last week, including one who worked in the building each day last week, had tested positive for COVID-19. They were also reminded by Senate President Karen Spilka's chief of staff that the Senate Reopening Working Group had sent around updated protocols on May 19.

"Because Senators and staff may participate in and monitor sessions remotely, it is possible to limit the number of people in the Senate Chamber and the Senate Reading Room," Mary Anne Padien wrote, though she also noted that the protocols do not limit the number of people in the chamber or offices. "The Working Group recommends that Senators and staff utilize these remote options to the extent possible and consider limiting time in the Senate Chamber and Senate Reading Room whenever possible."

The Senate Chamber is generally a busy place this week and likely still will be as the Senate begins debate on the fiscal year 2023 budget proposal that will be voted on by the end of the week. The Senate gaveled into session just after 10:15 a.m. Tuesday. Masks will be required in the chamber, the Senate lobby and the Senate Reading Room, where budget amendments are sometimes divided into the "yes" and "no" bundles that speed up the adoption and rejection processes.

There are 1,154 active amendments that senators want their colleagues to consider adding to the spending bill and the Senate's debate style typically involves senators standing to explain (often at the request of Minority Leader Bruce Tarr) their earmark or policy idea to the members and the public. That could put the Senate's glitchy teleconference and audio system to the test during what is usually a fast-paced session.

A new round of COVID-19 exposures has dogged the Legislature since late April, just as the branches embarked on a four-month marathon of lawmaking that includes budget debates and more than a handful of simultaneous conference committee negotiations. In the last month, the average number of daily new cases statewide is up about 42 percent and the positive test rate has climbed from 4.66 percent to 8.3 percent, state officials reported Monday.

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