For Virginia’s new House majority, masks and vaccines will be optional during session

Democrats and Republicans are at odds over safety protocols amid an ongoing COVID-19 surge

By: - January 7, 2022 2:35 pm

A hallway in the Capitol crowded with citizen and corporate lobbyists during the legislature’s 2019 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As Virginia lawmakers prepare to reconvene in Richmond for the 2022 General Assembly session, a looming question has been how the process will run amid an ongoing COVID-19 surge.

For Republicans in the House of Delegates, who won control of the chamber in November’s elections, the answer is as close to business as usual as possible. While KN95 masks will be available at the State Capitol and Pocahontas Building — where committee rooms and legislative offices are housed — there will be no mandate for visitors or lawmakers. Vaccinations and boosters, too, will be optional, though they’re “strongly recommended” by Republican leadership, according to caucus spokesperson Garren Shipley.

“It’s not a mandate, but Todd has been pretty clear from the get-go — get your shots,” Shipley said, referring to Speaker-designee Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “I can say the uptake of the vaccine among the Republican caucus has been high.”

The noncompulsory protocols set the House at odds with Virginia’s Democrat-controlled Senate, which has yet to release its own detailed operating procedures. In a Friday statement, though, leaders supported masks and vaccine requirements for members and anyone in the Senate chamber. 

“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,” said Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax. The policies announced by House Republicans are also a significant departure from those proposed by outgoing Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, who said Friday she would require vaccines and boosters — or a weekly testing and mask mandate — for legislators when they returned to Richmond. 

“There’s less restrictions now, according to the Republican plan, to get on the floor of the General Assembly than there are to walk into most coffeeshops,” she said in a Friday phone call. “It’s shocking. And that’s why I’m speaking out now and doing what I can while I am still Speaker.”

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, confers with Clerk Suzette Denslow as the Democratic majority took control of the chamber’s legislative proceedings in January 2020. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

As the minority party, though, Democrats have little say over the rules of the House session. It’s also unclear whether Senate Democrats plan to challenge Gilbert’s policies, given both chambers share administrative space in the Pocahontas Building.

The upcoming session isn’t the first return to in-person proceedings for legislators, who met at the Capitol for eight days in August to allocate approximately $4 billion in federal relief funds. At the time, though, Virginia was just emerging from a summer with historically low case counts coupled with relatively high vaccination rates, raising hopes that the worst of the pandemic may have been over.

Now, Virginia is grappling with record infection levels as the highly transmissible omicron variant moves across the state. On Friday alone, there were 18,309 new cases, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. The state’s positivity rate soared to nearly 35 percent, suggesting that more than one in three COVID-19 tests are returning positive.

Republican protocols do include some acknowledgement of the ongoing pandemic. According to a plan released by Gilbert, there will be temperature check stations throughout the Capitol and Pocahontas Building “to promote self-monitoring for any illness.” 

Incoming House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. (Ned Oliver /Virginia Mercury)

“If observed by the Capitol Police, persons whose temperature scan shows a fever will be asked to leave the building and strongly encouraged to get tested for COVID,” the plan continues. Occupancy at both buildings will also be “strictly monitored and enforced” by police, though the document includes no specific capacity restrictions. It’s unclear exactly how limits will be enforced, given the session’s typically hectic schedule of votes and committee meetings and constant traffic between both buildings.

Current guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends six feet of social distancing in social settings (though three feet is permissible in some areas, including schools, where such wide spacing may not be possible). Republicans announced that seating capacity will be reduced in committee rooms to allow “reasonable distance between public seating and the committee dais,” though the final set-up is still unclear.

It’s also not certain how the final spacing will affect public access to the meetings. According to the rules, visitors, journalists and lobbyists will not be allowed to stand at the perimeter of rooms or gather in the back.

The newly announced rules will also govern how delegates participate in the session. For much of the pandemic, when Democrats controlled the House, legislating was conducted entirely virtually while senators met in person at the Science Museum of Virginia. This year, Shipley said House members will be allowed to participate remotely if forced to quarantine or isolate, but must attend all subcommittee and committee meetings, as well as floor sessions, or nothing at all.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, right, confers with Democratic colleagues during the Senate floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (AP Pool Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown).

House leadership largely followed CDC recommendations for isolation and quarantine. Members and staffers who test positive for COVID-19 are directed to isolate for five days. In cases of close COVID-19 exposure, the document calls for five days of quarantine for those who haven’t received their vaccinations or boosters. Delegates and House employees who have been boosted will not be asked to quarantine after an exposure, but are directed to wear a face mask for at least 10 days.

Even before the plans were announced, some Democratic delegates said they’d have concerns about any protocols that didn’t include masking or vaccine requirements. Virginia’s busy General Assembly sessions, which pack a year’s worth of legislation into what are generally 45- and 60-day sessions, depending on the year, already had a reputation for spreading disease even without a global pandemic. This year’s 60-day session is scheduled to adjourn March 12.  

“We used to joke that everyone would get the session crud just sitting on elevators,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “Even in normal times, by crossover, everyone had laryngitis or a runny nose or a cough, or in some cases, a stomach flu.”

Under Republican House rules, members of the public will be able to comment on legislation remotely and stream the majority of proceedings — including smaller subcommittee meetings. “It would be a step backwards to remove that because it’s a long drive from Gate City to Richmond,” Shipley said. 

For Virginia politicians, though — and the lobbyists, state employees, journalists and advocates surrounding them — most public health protections are a matter of choice.

“Our hope is that people will avail themselves of these options,” Shipley said. “But at the end of the day, people are responsible for their own well-being.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comments from outgoing House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.