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General Assembly Prepares for Unprecedented Pandemic Session

Tables and chairs at the Dewey Gottwald Center
The Senate's temporary new chamber at the Dewey Gottwald Center at the Science Museum of Virginia (Ben Paviour/VPM News).

Virginia’s legislature has met in some form for over 400 years, during a revolution, a British invasion and a Civil War.

But they’ve never had a meeting quite like the one scheduled for Wednesday.

Faced with an unprecedented pandemic, lawmakers will meet in new locations. They’re being asked to wear masks but not ties. And they’ll have to keep a cool six feet of distance that won’t allow for the usual lean-and-whispers.

The Plans

When top Senate Democrats started to plan new, socially-distant digs, they knew who to ask: Susan Schaar, the no-nonsense clerk of the state Senate. She’s held her post since 1990, outlasting political cycles, internecine rivalries, and most senators.

“I haven't seen anything like this before,” Schaar said on Tuesday, behind a pink cloth mask.

She quickly settled on the Dewey Gottwald Center, an event space behind the Science Museum of Virginia.

In simpler times, it played host to wedding receptions and the premiere of the seventh season of the Showtime series “Homeland,” which filmed in Virginia.

Now four tidy rows of heavily-sanitized folding tables line the front half of the 11,000 sq ft. room. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax will lead proceedings from a stage. The space is so large that he’ll have to squint to see faces in the back, in the Senate’s new nosebleed section.

“Each member will have their own table,” Schaar said. “They will have their own microphone. They will be 10 feet away from each other.”

The House of Delegates, meanwhile, is meeting on the grounds of Capitol Square. A spokesperson for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said she believes it’s safer to meet outdoors, beneath a tented canopy next to the Capitol.

Clerk of the House Suzette Denslow described their plans to lawmakers in an email obtained by VPM.

“We will have chairs and a table for each member under a covering (to protect from sun or rain), with members seated at least six feet from each other (social distancing),” Denslow wrote.

Denslow encouraged lawmakers to bring their own food, dress “comfortably” and leave their ties at home -- a sartorial move popularized by Gov. Ralph Northam in his pandemic press conferences.

“Apparently, they are germ magnets and right next to your face,” Denslow wrote.

At least one member of her body, Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond), contracted COVID-19 last month. She’s on the mend and is planning on attending the session, according to her legislative aide.

Both chambers will communicate with each other via email, and will provide limited space for reporters.

‘Making this Up As They Go’

Sickness has been a part of the legislature’s history from its start. The first meeting of the House of Burgesses in 1619 ended abruptly when several attendees  fell ill.

Still, historian Brent Tarter said the legislature has never quite seen anything like COVID-19.

“I think they're making this up as they go along,” he said.

The legislature has faced its share of past disruptions. During the Revolutionary War, British troops ran lawmakers out of Richmond and then Charlottesville. At the same time, Gov. Thomas Jefferson’s one-year term expired.

“Here you have the enemy army chasing your legislature around and no governor to command the militia,” Tarter said. “It's lucky that the results weren't worse than they were.”

The British eventually retreated, and the legislature chose a new governor.

Then there was Richmond’s cholera outbreak of 1849, which  sent lawmakers packing to Fauquier County. The General Assembly wasn’t in session during the worst of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Later, during the Cold War, lawmakers debated how to continue working in the event of nuclear war.

“They knew that if there was going to be a war with the Russians, they were going to be dropping bombs all over D.C. and Norfolk,” Tarter said. “And that in the General Assembly, there might not be a quorum left alive.”

That fear led lawmakers to push changes to the state constitution ratified in 1962. It  now allows for a smaller number of legislators to pass laws in the event of an enemy attack.

Virtual Meetings

One thing the Constitution doesn’t mention: meeting remotely. Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn is considering rule changes that would allow votes from lawmakers’ living rooms during the pandemic.

Those plans are still vague and haven’t been released to the public. But it’s possible the House could meet briefly on April 22 to pass new rules, then reconvene virtually the next day to vote on the budget.

Virtual meetings are likely constitutional, according to Dick Howard, a law professor at the University of Virginia who helped oversee 1971 revisions to that document.

“A core premise of state constitutional law is that a state legislature can do anything not forbidden by either the US Constitution or the Virginia Constitution,” Howard said. “This basic principle is reinforced by the long-standing authority of legislatures to set their own rules of procedure.”

The statehouses of North Carolina and Utah are already doing business remotely. But open government advocates have expressed concerns about transparency.

“The public's ability to observe proceedings has to be part of this conversation,” said Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

It’s not clear if Virginia’s Senate is on board. Susan Schaar, whose opinion holds sway there, said in-person meetings are just “what the legislature is supposed to do.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said she prefers the transparency of in-person meetings. Still, McClellan said the legislature would eventually need to revisit all public meeting laws, including municipal meetings.

“No one should have to choose between staying safe and being able to participate in a public meeting,” she said.

Either way, the General Assembly still will meet in person next week. Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston), who has served in the House for nearly four decades, is getting ready.

“I’m not gonna be foolhardy,” the 78-year-old said. “I’m going to wear a mask, I’m gonna use hand sanitizer, I’m going to wash my hands frequently, and so on.”

Plum, the House’s longest-serving member, feels a duty to show up.

“I’m not going to be any less safe than someone who’s driving an ambulance, someone who’s on the police force, someone who’s my grocery store clerk,” he said.

When I tell Plum I might see him next week, he objects.

Stay home, he says, where you can watch in safety.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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