(The Center Square) – Virginia House of Delegate leadership and Virginia Senate leadership are planning different approaches to COVID-19 mitigation during floor proceedings and committee meetings for the upcoming session
The Senate, which will be controlled by Democratic leadership, intends to enact stricter protocols than the House, which will be under Republican leadership.
In a statement, Senate Democratic leaders announced they will support vaccine mandates for Senators and those in the Senate chamber. The policy would also require people to wear masks. They also plan to hold public participation virtually, rather than in person, through methods that include video and email testimony.
“The health and safety of our senators, staff, and visitors during the upcoming legislative session is top of mind as we convene in Richmond next week,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said in a statement. “Amidst the unprecedented surges driven by the delta and omicron covid variants, we are working with Senate Republicans and Senate staff to create an environment in which we can complete the important work of the people while staying safe and healthy.”
Jeff Ryer, a spokesperson for the Senate Republicans, told The Center Square that the Republican senators will follow the Senate rules, but that he believes the House Republican proposal is more practical.
“How nice for them," Ryer said. "Each Republican senator will set the standards for their office and will respect the protocols established by the Clerk’s Office. The Senate managed to meet all of last session in person with reasonable safeguards. Generally, our senators found the guidelines established by incoming Speaker Gilbert to be eminently practical."
House leadership plans to have some mitigation protocols, but will avoid mandates. The leadership plans to encourage members and others in the chamber to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and appropriate booster shots and will provide medical-grade N95 masks for anyone who wants them, but do not plan to make either mandatory. The House plans to have in-person testimony, but also plans to make remote testimony available and asks those who have symptoms of the virus not to attend in person. Temperature screening will also be available.
“When the House of Delegates last met in 2021, it was our sincere hope that COVID would be a memory before we reconvened in 2022,” Speaker-designee Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement. “While we have made a great deal of progress in mitigating the pandemic, it is clear that COVID will be with us as we begin the 2022 Session.”
“Nonetheless, it is crucial that we not only get the people’s business done in a timely manner, but we do so in an open and transparent fashion, while operating in as regular of order as possible,” Gilbert said. “For that reason — failing some unforeseen crisis beyond COVID — the House of Delegates will meet in person for the 2022 session beginning on January 12th. In-person testimony before committees will resume, but virtual testimony via video link will remain available."
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who will yield her position to Gilbert when the new Republican-led House is sworn in, encouraged stricter measures. She supports mandatory vaccines and booster shots for House members and staff and mandatory reporting of potential COVID-19 symptoms.
The commonwealth, as well as the nation, have seen a rise in COVID-19 cases in recent months, and an increase in hospitalizations. Nearly 90% of Virginia adults have received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The new omicron variant has been more likely to evade vaccine and natural immunity, but health experts say it tends to be less severe than the original strain and the delta variant.