Granted, the national case count of daily covid-19 infections has not reached the stratospheric levels of January, when the 100-member House of Delegates met virtually for its annual session, and the 40-member Senate convened at the Science Museum of Virginia, in Richmond, in a spacious auditorium that allowed for social distancing. Nonetheless, cases are once again surging, owing to the exceptionally transmissible delta variant. And while the state’s per capita daily new infections over the past seven days, 10 cases per 100,000 residents, is modest compared with that of many other states, the pace at which the virus is spreading in Virginia — a 233 percent increase since July 19 — is faster than in all but a handful of states.
Plexiglass partitions have been installed between lawmakers’ desks, and a spokesperson for the House speaker, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who has broad authority over procedures in her chamber, said, “We are following the science.” In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Americans be masked when they gather indoors, especially in areas of high virus transmission — such as parts of south and southwestern Virginia from which lawmakers have traveled to Richmond. The General Assembly is spurning that CDC guidance, even if some individual members and aides — more Democrats than Republicans, some lawmakers told us — have chosen to wear masks while in the House and Senate chambers. Nor are lawmakers required to have their temperature checked on their way into the chambers, as senators did when they convened at the Science Museum this winter.
The legislature is setting exactly the wrong example, at exactly the wrong time. Virginians, like all Americans, are understandably tired of the pandemic — but the pandemic is not tired of them. In the face of continued resistance to the vaccine, the virus is making opportunistic gains. Indoor mask-wearing, as much as we’d like to be done with it, is a minimum step toward checking the delta variant’s advance. And the more public and elected officials lead by example in that regard, the better.
If leadership is not forthcoming from the House and Senate, the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) should step up. Some no-nonsense guidance from Daniel Carey, Virginia’s secretary for health and human resources, might do the trick, especially if it is delivered loudly and publicly. Just two weeks ago, his department recommended that all elementary school students, teachers and staff wear masks when classes resume in the fall. The General Assembly may also need a lesson.