Legislative assembly

For the new majority in the Virginia House, masks and vaccines will be optional during the session

As Virginia lawmakers prepare to meet again in Richmond for the 2022 General Assembly session, an imminent question is how the process will play out amid a continuing wave of COVID-19.

For Republicans in the House of Delegates, who won control of the chamber in the November election, the answer is as close to business as possible. While the KN95 masks will be available at the State Capitol and the Pocahontas Building – where the committee rooms and legislative offices are located – there will be no warrant for visitors or lawmakers. Vaccines and boosters will also be optional, although they are “strongly recommended” by Republican leaders, according to caucus spokesman Garren Shipley.

“It’s not a warrant, but Todd was pretty clear from the start – take your photos,” Shipley said, referring to President-elect Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “I can say that the vaccine uptake among the Republican caucus has been high.”

The non-binding protocols put the House at odds with the Democrat-controlled Virginia Senate, which has yet to release its own detailed operating procedures. In a statement on Friday, however, leaders backed mask and vaccine requirements for members and anyone in the Senate chamber.

“Amid the unprecedented surges caused by the delta and omicron covid variants, we are working with Senate Republicans and Senate staff to create an environment in which we can do the important work of the people while remaining safe and secure. good health, ”Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said. , D-Fairfax. The policies announced by House Republicans also deviate significantly from those proposed by outgoing President Eileen Filler-Corn, who said on Friday that she need for vaccines and boosters – or a weekly test and mask mandate – for lawmakers upon their return to Richmond.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn D-Fairfax speaks with Clerk Suzette Denslow as the Democratic majority took control of the House’s legislative business in January 2020 (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

As a minority party, however, Democrats have little say in the rules of the House session. It’s also unclear whether Senate Democrats plan to challenge Gilbert’s policies, given that the two chambers share administrative space in the Pocahontas building.

The next session is not the first return to face-to-face proceedings for lawmakers, who gathered on Capitol Hill for eight days in August to allocate more than $ 4 billion in federal relief funds. At the time, however, Virginia was just emerging from a summer with a historically low case number coupled with relatively high vaccination rates, giving hope that the worst of the pandemic may be over.

Now Virginia is struggling with record infection levels as the highly transmissible omicron variant moves through the state. As of Friday alone, there were 18,309 new cases, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. The state’s positivity rate has climbed to nearly 35%, suggesting more than one in three COVID-19 tests come back positive.

Republican protocols include some recognition of the ongoing pandemic. According to a plan published by Gilbert, there will be temperature monitoring stations throughout the Capitol and the Pocahontas building “to promote self-monitoring for any disease”.

New House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

“If observed by Capitol Police, people whose temperature analysis shows fever will be asked to leave the building and strongly encouraged to get tested for COVID,” the plan continues. The occupancy of the two buildings will also be “strictly monitored and enforced” by the police, although the document does not include any specific capacity restrictions. It is unclear exactly how the limits will be enforced, given the generally busy schedule of votes and committee meetings in the session and the constant traffic between the two buildings.

Current guidelines from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend six feet of social distancing in social settings (although three feet are allowed in some areas, including schools, where such wide spacing may not be possible). Republicans have announced that seating will be reduced in committee rooms to allow “a reasonable distance between public seats and the committee stage,” although the final configuration is still unclear.

It is also unclear how the final spacing will affect public access to meetings. According to the rules, visitors, journalists and lobbyists will not be allowed to stand at the perimeter of the rooms or to congregate at the back.

The newly announced rules will also govern how delegates participate in the session. During much of the pandemic, when Democrats controlled the House, legislation was conducted entirely virtually while Senators met in person at the Science Museum of Virginia. This year, Shipley said House members will be allowed to participate remotely if forced to quarantine or self-isolate, but must attend all subcommittee and committee meetings, as well as ‘to floor sessions, or nothing at all.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, right, chats with fellow Democrats during the Senate sitting in the temporary Virginia Senate Chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond , Va., Thursday, September 10, 2020 (AP Pool Photo / Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown).

House leaders have largely followed the CDC’s recommendations regarding segregation and quarantine. Members and staff who test positive for COVID-19 are asked to self-isolate for five days. In the event of close exposure to COVID-19, the document requests five days of quarantine for those who have not received their vaccines or booster shots. Delegates and housekeepers who have been boosted will not be asked to quarantine themselves after exposure, but are advised to wear a face mask for at least 10 days.

Even before the plans were announced, some Democratic delegates said they would have concerns about any protocol that did not include masking or vaccine requirements. The responsible sessions of the Virginia General Assembly, which bundle a year of legislation into sessions typically 45 and 60 days, depending on the year, already had a reputation for spreading disease even without a global pandemic. This year’s 60-day session is scheduled to end on March 12.

“We used to joke that everyone would get the crud of the session just sitting on elevators,” Del said. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “Even in normal times, by crossbreeding, everyone had laryngitis or a runny nose or a cough, or in some cases, stomach flu.”

Under Republican House rules, members of the public will be able to comment on legislation remotely and broadcast the majority of proceedings, including small subcommittee meetings. “It would be a step back to take that away because it’s a long drive from Gate City to Richmond,” Shipley said.

For Virginia politicians, however, and lobbyists, state employees, journalists, and advocates around them, most public health protections are a matter of choice.

“Our hope is that people take these options,” Shipley said. “But at the end of the day, people are responsible for their own well-being.”