COVID-19 restrictions changing W.Va. legislative session

Published: Feb. 5, 2021 at 5:34 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The West Virginia Capitol is about to be filled with delegates and senators with the legislative session beginning next week. Restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are completely changing the way things are normally done.

Members of the public are only allowed in the Capitol with an appointment, under safety measures Gov. Jim Justice enacted in March and confirmed Friday would not change for the session. Additionally, only House and Senate members will be allowed on the chamber floor with a few essential staff members.

“We have been preparing for this for months because we thought we might have a special session last year,” House Clerk Steve Harrison said. “One of the major things we have done is upgrade our voting system so our members can vote from the gallery if they choose to do so.”

Harrison said members must wear a face mask while on the floor, except when recognized to speak. Any delegate who does not feel safe on the floor is welcome in the East Gallery, while delegates who have a reason not to wear a mask are allowed to sit in the West Gallery.

Each desk has a bottle of sanitizing spray and the entire chamber will be deep cleaned at least once per week, Harrison said. Hand sanitizer dispensers are also located in every hallway throughout the Capitol and there are capacity limits in certain areas.

Due to social distancing rules, House committees will only meet in two locations, the chamber and the Government Organization Committee room. Harrison said these spaces will be cleaned between each use, but the limited space will prevent committees from meeting as frequently as they normally would during a 60-day regular session.

“There will be less time for committee meetings, so I expect the volume of bills passed will be less than a normal session, but I don’t know how much lower right now,” Harrison said. “If things improve, which hopefully they do, who knows? By the end of the session it might be more normal than it is right now.”

In addition to restrictions on members of the public entering the Capitol, Harrison said, there will not be any interns or pages this session. Members of the media will be allowed in the South Gallery with overflow space in the Great Hall, preventing the normal exhibition tables set up there.

On Friday, Gov. Justice said capacity limits will be enforced for his State of the State address that normally packs the House of Delegates chamber.

“We’ve got to go on with our lives and everything, but at the same time we don’t want to go on at the risk of compounding an issue that is a terrible problem like we already have,” Justice said.

All floor sessions and committee meetings will be live streamed online for the public to watch, Harrison said. Some committee meetings might be held via video conference, but legislature rules require floor sessions to be done in-person.

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