General Assembly Republicans go maskless as omicron surges

The divide sparked more debate over COVID-19 protocols for the 2022 session

By: - January 13, 2022 12:04 am

Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, center, on the floor of the House of Delegates after being sworn into office. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

It was easy to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans at the start of Virginia’s 2022 General Assembly session. Just look at who was wearing a mask.

Not a single House Republican donned a face covering Wednesday as lawmakers reconvened in Richmond among record-breaking COVID-19 numbers. Republican senators also largely went maskless, while Democrats in both chambers generally chose to keep their faces covered amid a statewide surge in cases “largely driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant,” according to a recent clinician’s letter from outgoing state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver. 

On Monday alone, Virginia recorded nearly 20,000 new infections. Hospitalizations have also reached higher levels than at any other point during the pandemic.

The lack of masking amid a COVID-19 surge frustrated Democrats and spurred continued debate on operating procedures for the 60-day session. Neither chamber is requiring masks or vaccinations among members. There were also no mandates for lawmakers during a brief in-person session last August, when the General Assembly met to allocate nearly $4 billion in federal pandemic relief funds.

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

At the time, though, Virginia was recording historically low case counts combined with relatively high vaccination rates. Outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 state of emergency had just recently expired, marking an end to statewide health and safety measures. Improving metrics were raising hopes that the pandemic was coming to an end, in sharp contrast to the current wave of infections, said former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. She described the disparity in masking among Democrat and Republican lawmakers as “disturbing.”

“If there’s something we can do as leaders to keep people safe, we should do it,” she said. “And we also need to make sure that the General Assembly can continue to operate.”

Throughout the pandemic, both chambers have tried to accommodate the possibility of an outbreak among legislators. Senate leaders have allowed members to vote virtually as needed, and current House rules allow newly elected Speaker Todd Gilbert to authorize remote voting for any member forced to isolate or quarantine.

Before a final vote on the rules, though, House Democrats pushed the speaker to make those exceptions more explicit. Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, introduced several amendments to clarify remote voting policies, including a change that would require Gilbert to allow remote voting for members. Another would have allowed him to reconvene an entirely virtual session with a simple majority vote, rather than requiring support from two-thirds of the House.

“The requirement for a super majority doesn’t really make sense in this context,” Simon said on the floor. “I think it’s a guarantee that we won’t end up meeting remotely again.”

The amendments were defeated in 51-48 party line votes.  Republicans, who now hold a two-seat majority in House, had criticized Filler-Corn’s decision to meet remotely throughout most of the pandemic.

Republican leaders described the changes as unnecessary, and defended the decision to forgo face coverings in the crowded House chamber. 

“We left it up to each member whether to wear or not wear a mask on the floor,” said Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, who stated he was fully vaccinated (though not boosted) and had already contracted the virus. 

“Most of our members are fully vaccinated and opted not to wear one,” he added. “I’m not saying I couldn’t get it again — I don’t know. But I had it mild the first time and I hope that with the immunization, it would be mild again.”

There was also some sparring in the Senate over plexiglass structures separating senators. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, complained that the barriers remind him of Dustin Hoffman beating on the church doors at the end of “The Graduate,” screaming “Elaine! Elaine!’” Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, an OB-GYN, said the barriers aren’t an effective mitigation measure and actually obstruct ventilation. “There’s great evidence to support anyone who wants their cage removed,” she said.

Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, reminded the senators of the death of Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, of COVID-19 last year. “Keep the glass up,” Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax said.

Reporter Sarah Vogelsong contributed. 

Correction: The legislature convened on Wednesday. This article has been updated to reflect that. 

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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.