RICHMOND, Va. — When Virginia state senators and delegates return to Richmond for their regular reconvene session on Wednesday, much of what they do will break with tradition because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to practice social distancing.
Senators will be meeting in the Science Museum of Virginia’s roughly 11,000-square-foot Dewey Gottwald Center.
“The last few weeks have been a challenge, but, we were very fortunate that the Science Museum had this space available and they have been wonderful to work with. They're excited about being part of a historic event. And we have the internet capability here. We had a great sound system here,” said Clerk of the Senate Susan Clarke Schaar on Tuesday as she finalized preparations in the meeting space. “We transferred microphones and voting consoles from the Senate chamber out here and our IT team has been working very hard to make sure everything is connected and working correctly.”
Schaar, who said she has been working for the senate for 46 years, said she can not remember anything similar like this happening.
“They didn't have an issue meeting in 1918 with the flu epidemic. They did leave Richmond during the cholera epidemic in, I think it was 1849. They went to Fauquier County,” said Schaar.
In terms of how the day will operate, with the equipment brought over from the senate, Schaar said it will be very much like how this operate at the State Capitol, only with more space between Senators.
“It's much more spread out than the Senate chamber. So, it's not quite as close and cohesive,” added Schaar. “It's very far to the back row but the Lieutenant Governor has his podium up here and we have a seating chart for him. Everything will work just the way it does. A member will push their speak button and they will be recognized by the Lieutenant Governor and they will stand at their desk and make their comments.”
Schaar said everything they have set up has been signed off on by officials at the Virginia Department of Health.
“Everyone has to wear a mask and we have mask if you don't have your own. We have gloves for people want the gloves,” added Schaar. “We are not passing it paper like we normally do. It's you know legislature's very paper oriented. We're not passing a paper to keep from passing from hand-to-hand. We have scrubbed down the table desk and sprayed everything with Lysol. We did that two days ago, yesterday, and then again tomorrow, it'll be done.”
A few miles to the east, preparations were being finished just outside the State Capitol with delegates in the House will be meeting under a tent to the southeast of the building, albeit briefly.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn has stated she wants to hold an in-person vote at the start of the reconvene session to allow the remainder of the session to be conducted remotely.
“So voting to quickly change our rules and go into a remote session is ideal,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “And the next day with public access, so and that's what we're striving to accomplish.”
Herring said the public will still be able to access the remote session and they have established several methods for members to join the remote session even if they are having issues with their internet connection.
“There is an option available that if members are not happy or having problems. We can even have it in urban areas for your system, maybe down your wireless connection or your internet,” said Herring. “Some members could be able to also participate by by telephone. So the clerk's will have to ask and call out names and do roll call for those members...It's a diverse Commonwealth and the Speaker is working with the other side of the aisle to make sure that those members are will be situated and okay with remote voting.”
And while each chamber is approaching how to hold the reconvene session differently, lawmakers will be discussing the same topics. Namely, Governor Ralph Northam’s proposed amendments to the state budget and bills passed in the last General Assembly session with many of them coming as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19. Among them, is a recommendation to delay implementation of the minimum wage increase.
Northam is also asking lawmakers to consider two measures he’s introduced in response to the pandemic. One is to delay the upcoming May elections until November. The other is to allow certain inmates with less than a year left on their sentence to be released from prison early.
Another element that both chambers are planning for is the appearance of protesters. Protests are planned at both sessions where people will call for the COVID-19 related restrictions in the state to be lifted. A similar protest was held last week outside the Executive Mansion.
“Capitol Police remind people that Executive Orders 53 and 55 remain in effect and that Capitol Square will be closed to the public Wednesday because of the House of Delegates gathering outdoors for its special session,” said Capitol Police Public Information Officer Joe Macenka in a statement regarding the planned protests. “As always, Capitol Police are working with our law enforcement partners and others in the region with public safety as our overall goal.”