Once Gov. Kathy Hochul's expanded pandemic powers ended this fall, so did the state's slew of coronavirus restrictions first implemented in the early days of the pandemic, but that was three months after last year's legislative session ended.
Lawmakers returned to Albany on Wednesday without any of the COVID-19 protections in place since early 2020, including the requiring of face masks, participating in session remotely and the barring of visitors.
The People's House was nearly empty throughout the COVID pandemic under some of the nation's strictest related policies.
On their first day of legislative session for the year, lawmakers and advocates say the walls of the state Capitol are humming just like they should — and just as they used to.
"Today feels like the olden days pre-pandemic," NYPIRG Executive Director Blair Horner said. "People are wandering around, by and large, without masks, and the sort of the energy level, the human interaction, is there that wasn't here last year."
Businesses reopened under restrictions in spring 2020 and students returned to in-person classes at all grade levels that fall.
But the Capitol remained largely restricted to visitors through this past July — giving officials a way to skirt the press, public and accountability.
Rachael Fauss, senior policy advisor with Reinvent Albany, says people have adjusted to life with COVID, and it was time for a change.
"It's the world we live in and I think the rules need to be consistent," she said Wednesday. "If things are open, the Legislature should be open. The state Capitol should be open. So I think it's, it's not a matter of... You know what, I'm not a public health expert, but the state government should be following the same rules that they give for businesses."
That's a sentiment Republican lawmakers shared over the last two years as they fought to end face mask requirements and other pandemic rules.
Sen. Pam Helming, a Republican from Canandaigua, was a legislator who led the push for the governor's expanded pandemic authority to expire and the Legislature to return to normal.
She says seeing her colleagues' body language as they speak or listen to each other is indispensable.
"I've had great business happen in the elevators and in the women's restroom," she said of important conversations that happen off the Senate floor. "But when you don't have people together, you're not having those off-the-floor conversations that are so incredibly important when you're trying to share information with your colleagues."
It's up to the individual branches of the state Legislature to impose COVID-19 requirements for their members, staffers and visitors. Senate and Assembly officials today said they continue to monitor the state's coronavirus rate, but they don't anticipate any changes at this time.
The state has an 8.8% COVID-19 positivity rate over a one-week average paired with a rising number of people hospitalized with the virus, according to Hochul's office. The uptick is expected throughout the winter months, and usually tapers off starting late January.
"The Office of General Services fully complies with COVID-19 protocols established by the New York State Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and we will continue to carefully monitor the state's progress in combatting the virus," according to OGS officials. "We encourage all employees and visitors to the Capitol Building to remain vigilant and use the tools that protect against Covid-19, including vaccines, boosters, testing and treatment."
Upgraded air filtration in the state Capitol completes two-hour fresh air exchanges before the start and at the end of the day, according to the state Office of General Services.
Members of the Legislature are prepared for much-spirited debate during upcoming budget talks and policy changes throughout the next six months.
But lawmakers agree conducting their work in-person is the best for New Yorkers and democracy.
"I feel like when we're all together, we're better serving our constituents and that's always our top priority," Helming said.
A handful of lawmakers and staffers wore face masks in their respective chamber or walking around the Capitol on Wednesday. A few declined to be interviewed, but added they might have more to say about their concerns in the coming weeks.