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Virginia House of Delegates to meet online in 2021 as coronavirus cases rise

Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), seen here at the opening of the 2019 session, said the House will meet remotely during its special session in January, citing the danger of the coronavirus pandemic. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Virginia's House of Delegates will meet online for the 2021 legislative session that convenes in January, Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said Monday, citing the need to avoid a coronavirus pandemic that has been worsening across the state.

The House went virtual this summer for the first time during a special session that began Aug. 18 and tackled budget, coronavirus and criminal justice issues. That session stretched across 84 days — longer than the regular session set to open Jan. 13.

“I wish we could hold the session in person, I wish we could all be together,” Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said in an interview. “But right now it’s too dangerous.”

Later Monday morning, Republican leaders in the House and Senate said they will use procedural methods to limit the length of next year’s General Assembly session to 30 days instead of a planned 46 days.

The state constitution orders Virginia’s legislature to meet in sessions of alternating length: 60 days during even-numbered years and 30 days during odd-numbered years. Traditionally, the legislature extends the short session to 46 days — but that requires a two-thirds procedural vote, which Republicans said Monday they will not support.

The limits are “to ensure we have a citizen legislature, not one populated by full-time politicians,” House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in a news release noting the extraordinary length of this year’s sessions.

In a reference to his dissatisfaction with the virtual approach on the House side, Gilbert added that the limits make sense “until the people of Virginia can once again fully participate in their government.”

The state Senate met over the summer in a large conference room at the Science Museum of Virginia, which allowed members to sit far apart to avoid infection. The Senate has not yet announced its plans for January, but with 40 members, it does not face the same scale of logistical issues as the 100-member House.

Across the country, two dozen state legislatures have made provisions this year for some form of online or virtual meetings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Maryland, the presiding officers are not reconsidering their plans for the upcoming 90-day session, which also begins Jan. 13.

Earlier this month, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore) released detailed plans for the 2021 legislative session that include a host of changes designed to prevent a spread of the virus, including plexiglass barriers in the chambers, limited in-person committee hearings and floor sessions.

“We created a plan with the advice of experts, and we feel confident about the plan and the contingencies built within it,” said Jake Weissmann, a spokesman for Ferguson.

Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for Jones, said that outside of opening day, the House of Delegates does not expect to have large numbers of House members in Annapolis for the first month of the session. Committee hearings will be virtual and a new emergency rule will allow bills to be introduced with just the House speaker and majority and minority leaders in the chamber. No other lawmakers would need to be present, she said.

Filler-Corn faced criticism from Virginia Republicans for moving the earlier session online. Members in rural areas complained that their Internet connections were not reliable, and Gilbert said the Zoom meetings limited public participation because not everyone has access to broadband.

“It’s much less than ideal,” Gilbert said Monday. “I understand her very strong opinions on the pandemic but I think it is proving very difficult for the public to have full participation in government under these circumstances.”

Live from someone’s kitchen: Virginia’s virtual House of Delegates

But Filler-Corn insisted that meeting online was the safest way to handle the need to convene so many people during a health crisis. She said she had explored options for convening in person, including holding a session outside at the Capitol, but found them to be impractical or unsafe.

The House will hold all of its committee and subcommittee meetings through video conference, Filler-Corn said, marking the first time that all subcommittee sessions are live-streamed. House Clerk Suzette Denslow is adding staff and technology to accommodate the far greater volume of legislation that will come in the regular session than in the special session, with plans to allow up to six committees to meet online simultaneously.

Filler-Corn said the House is preparing extra steps to encourage public participation, including an option to submit written comments on pending legislation.

Before announcing her decision Monday, Filler-Corn consulted with the Virginia Department of Health, which recommended the move.

With infections on the rise around the state, “the crowded offices, meeting space, and elevators in the [General Assembly office building] are factors that increase the risk of spreading COVID-19,” Virginia Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver wrote to Filler-Corn. “Based on these factors, VDH, in consultation with the Richmond City Health District, strongly recommends the House of Delegates conduct the 2021 General Assembly session virtually to the greatest extent possible.”

Virginia to tighten restrictions amid rise in infections

Recent upticks in coronavirus infections around the state led Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Nov. 13 to announce new restrictions on public gatherings heading into Thanksgiving and the holiday season.

Virginia’s seven-day average of positive tests had risen to 7.3 percent as of Monday after hitting as low as 4.7 percent in October. While the southwest region is seeing the worst spikes, every area of the state is seeing rising infection rates.

Northam ordered gatherings in public spaces limited to 25 people, down from 250, and directed restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. and to close by midnight.

Several House of Delegates members have tested positive for the coronavirus, including Del. Thomas C. Wright Jr. (R-Lunenburg), who came down with the virus shortly after the General Assembly gathered in person at the beginning of the August special session.

The House had just moved its work online, and no other members reported being infected.

Meanwhile, Filler-Corn said she is keeping her eye on recent encouraging news about the development of coronavirus vaccines.

“If things change dramatically, we can change the plans,” she said. “But these are the plans as of now, based on science, based on the experts and based on the information we have today.”

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.