OKLAHOMA CITY -- A deeply divided Legislature gathered Tuesday for the first official day of session as debate continued to rage over what precautions should be taken in the Capitol to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Dozens of people roamed the hallways of the Capitol without masks despite a Republican legislative mandate that all individuals inside the state building must wear facial coverings over their mouths and noses at all times when social distancing is difficult to observe.

In the state House chamber, nearly a third of lawmakers -- all Republicans -- refused to wear masks. They sat side-by-side, just an arm's length away from each other for several hours.

Nearly 1 in 4 lawmakers did not wear masks in the state Senate.

"Unfortunately, some House Republicans chose to set a very poor example today," said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. "Instead of showing leadership and following recommended health protocols, these members chose to make some sort of misguided political statement that is offensive to all the Oklahomans who are suffering or have lost loved ones to this horrible virus.

"They are even flouting their own governor's executive order requiring all state employees and visitors in state buildings to wear masks," she said. "Why do they think they are exempt from this order?"

The Capitol mask rule doesn't apply to lawmakers the same way it does to state employees or visitors, said John Estus, a spokesman for House Speaker Charles MCall, R-Atoka. He said lawmakers are accountable to their constituents.

McCall and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, announced in November that they planned to enforce mask wearing within the Capitol building when social distancing is not possible. Exceptions include when a person is alone, has a bona fide religious exemption, while eating or drinking, or if it would aggravate an existing health condition.

But with little fanfare, House Republican lawmakers Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a proposal by their Democratic counterparts that would have required mask wearing in the legislative chamber by making face coverings part of the dress code.

House leaders at times, meanwhile, seemed to struggle to balance new social distancing requirements in public observation galleries. Employees blocked off large chunks of seats with blue painter's tape or yellow caution tape in a bid to ensure visitors sat six feet apart.

But the restrictions appeared inflexible at times.

Despite her objections, a woman wasn't allowed to sit next to her two children. They each had to sit in chairs six feet away from each other. The same restrictions also forced a married couple to watch the proceedings from six feet apart.

Estus said House leaders are still hashing out final COVID-19 protocols ahead of Feb. 1 when lawmakers next formally convene.

Currently, House employees are on a rotating work schedule that allows a mix of in-person and remote work. Leaders also plan to limit capacity in committee rooms and offer overflow rooms to watch legislative proceedings, he said.

In the state Senate, a bipartisan group of senators and staffers continued to evaluate COVID-19 protocols for the 2021 session, Treat said.

"Our goal is for the Oklahoma Senate to have protocols in place for the 2021 session that help ensure the health and safety of Senate staff, members and the public that may visit the Capitol," he said.

State Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said she was disappointed that not all senators chose to wear masks. She said the Senate's current policies fall short of what is needed to protect Oklahomans from the spread of COVID-19.

"The Senate rules set limits on the size and design of our coffee cups and require us to wear suit coats and dress shoes," she said.

"It is reasonable to expect the same level of scrutiny to support the health of senators, our families and our constituents. While it is good that public statements encouraged the three W's -- wear a mask, watch your distance, wash your hands -- we need more than a marketing strategy. Pandemic precautions should have been clarified and encouraged in our policies and procedures including our Senate rules, especially as we convene during a continuing pandemic."

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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