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Constituents Will Have Some Access to Lawmakers Despite COVID-19 Risks

FILE PHOTO: Virginia State Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, gestures as she addresses the Senate during the Virginia Senate Special Session in the temporary Senate chambers at the Science Museum of Virginia on Wednesday Aug. 19, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, Pool)

The Pocahontas building, where state lawmaker’s offices are located, will remain closed to the public during the upcoming legislative session.  

Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph filed a lawsuit last month to keep the building open so constituents could talk to their legislators in person. 

The complaint named Senate Rules Chair Sen. Mamie Locke, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and others. Legislative leaders decided to limit building access to lawmakers and their staff based on the advice of state health officials. 

In a hearing last week, U.S. District Court Judge David Novak agreed with leadership that they had the authority to close the building to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But instead of ruling, he asked both parties to come up with an alternative that makes lawmakers accessible to their constituents while keeping the public safe. The plan now is to designate an office space in downtown Richmond where up to 10 constituents at a time can meet with their legislators. That location may not be announced until Friday. 

DeSteph released a statement Friday calling the outcome a “huge victory”.  

 “The decision to close the Pocahontas Building was a clear violation of the First Amendment and communicated an eagerness by Senator Locke, Speaker Filler-Corn, and the Northam administration to shut out public input in the legislative process,” DeSteph said.

 “We just lost a senator to Covid,” said Senate Clerk Susan Schaar. “It’s not trying to deny access, it’s trying to keep people safe.”

Schaar said there’s no room for physical distancing in the Pocahontas building, which had an average of 5,000 people come through the doors last session. 

Kunal Atit, spokesperson for Speaker Filler-Corn, called DeSteph’s lawsuit a political stunt.  

“We are pleased that these measures to protect legislators, professional staff, capitol police, and communities across the commonwealth were upheld. As COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise in Virginia, Senator DeSteph's lack of seriousness on the issue is disappointing."

The 40-member Senate will convene January 13 in a large conference center space at the Science Museum of Virginia, just as they did with the Special Session this summer. The House will meet virtually.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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