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Almost a year after adjourning last March, lawmakers returned to the state capitol early in January to prepare for the upcoming legislative session.
But this time, they wore face masks. Some had to work away from the floor, in spectator galleries, apart from the colleagues with whom they normally would sit side-by-side.
West Virginia legislators say they’re prepared to convene in less than a month. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, leaders say they’re aiming to complete a 60-day in-person session. Meanwhile, other U.S. statehouses in Mississippi and Missouri already have reported COVID-19 outbreaks and cases this year.
“We’re prepared for ‘worst case scenario’ and we’re prepared for ‘best case scenario,’” said Senate President Craig Blair, a Republican from Berkeley County.
Each chamber of the West Virginia Legislature is responsible for enacting its own guidelines and rules for COVID-19 precautions. The capitol complex is still closed to the public, minus those who have appointments, by the governor’s executive order from last March.
Clerks from both the House and Senate said that from each chamber, staff and lawmakers formed COVID-19 working groups over the summer. They talked through different scenarios, reviewed guidance from state and federal experts and applied their discussions to the legislative process.
Lawmakers are still determining what precautions they’ll take to avoid coronavirus spread or outbreaks. Clerks for both chambers said that members likely won’t vote on everything until closer to Feb. 10, the first day of the 2021 legislative session.
“It’s been a very fluid situation,” said House Clerk Steve Harrison. “We realize that things can change between now and February. Hopefully things will be improving, but we’re prepared to operate in the current environment if we need to.”
So far, the House of Delegates is the only chamber that’s voted on any COVID-19-related rules. Delegates passed House Resolution 5 on Jan. 10, during an organizational one-day session, for “implementing pandemic safety procedures.”
The resolution bars anyone other than a delegate or authorized employee from entering the House floor, where lawmakers sit and vote, during the 2021 session. It further requires that all lawmakers on the floor wear a mask, unless speaking to the entire chamber or eating.
Lawmakers who choose not to wear a mask are assigned a space in one of three spectator galleries, normally reserved for the public. A second gallery has been designated for lawmakers who want to wear their masks and sit farther from their colleagues.
Away from the House floor, in committee meetings where delegates review and debate legislation, House Resolution 5 requires that all members wear a face covering “or maintain appropriate social distance from all other persons attending committee meetings.”
House Democrats — who this year are up against a Republican supermajority — unsuccessfully asked their chamber to include a requirement that lawmakers must wear masks “properly,” covering both the nose and the mouth.
“This is a disease that is affecting all of us in our districts,” said Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia. “Many of our families, many of our places of work, places of worship … this is serious business, and us, as legislators, are not spared.”
Before rejecting the proposal, House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said the Democrats’ amendment would lead to “points of order left and right.”
“I think we all know the proper way to wear our masks, and we’re expecting each other to do that,” Summers said during the vote. “If someone is choosing not to do that, or if you’re concerned about that, we as the House have provided you other opportunities to be more socially distanced in the galleries.”
Meanwhile, In The W.Va. Senate
Senate Clerk Lee Cassis said lawmakers likely will vote on COVID-19 guidelines once the session kicks off next month.
After hearing from other clerks in states that have convened for in-person sessions during the pandemic, Cassis said the West Virginia Senate will use a combination of guidelines and rules for mask-wearing, social distancing, and maybe even alternative ways to conduct committee hearings, so lawmakers aren’t all in the same small room for hours at a time.
“Committee rooms are more difficult than the chambers,” said Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin. “The chamber is a much easier space for social distancing than the committee rooms are. So, we would like to see the public and members participate in committees, virtually.”
Baldwin said his party is still negotiating with the Republican majority, when it comes to COVID-19 rules for the upcoming session.
Earlier this year, Senate staff upgraded committee rooms, which already were capable of live-streaming videos of meetings, to include video-conferencing equipment for outside presenters and members of the public.
The House offers less online access in its committee rooms. While archived and live videos from the House floor are available online, House committees live-stream audio from their meetings. The recordings don’t allow for playback.
Senate President Blair said that ahead of the session he has prioritized vaccinating as many senators and staff as he can, who are willing.
Blair estimated that a majority of his senators have been vaccinated at this time. While the governor has prioritized state lawmakers in his allocation plan for the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s unclear how many Senate employees — many of whom work full time, seasonally and part time — have access to or have accepted the vaccine.
In the House, leaders declined to report how many have been vaccinated so far, citing privacy reasons.
Dave Mistich contributed to this report.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.