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Legislature Plans For Session Without Public During COVID

Courtesy of Senate President's Office

Annapolis in January is usually buzzing with activity as the Maryland General Assembly meets for its annual 90-day session. Because of the pandemic, the 2021 legislative session is expected to look quite different, with all meetings live-streamed but access to the public restricted.


“The very nature of legislating is the act of coming together, convening to build the laws for the people of Maryland,” Senate President Bill Ferguson told reporters Friday. “In the midst of a global pandemic convening certainly is not a recommended strategy to employ.”


The leaders of the House of Delegates, which has 141 members, and the Senate, which has 47 members, have released slightly different plans for their respective chambers. 


For the Senate, Ferguson has released a plan with three stages. Stage one goes into effect if there are “multiple instances” of COVID-19 among the legislators or staff who keep the wheels of state government turning. Stage three takes effect if there is “low level disease activity.”

Among the biggest changes will be limits to who is allowed in the state government complex in Annapolis.


The public will be allowed to meet in-person with House members by appointment only. In-person meetings with Senate members will be allowed by appointment during stage three. 


Otherwise, no lobbyists or members of the public will be permitted in the buildings, with the exception of registered members of the press. 


All committee meetings and public testimony at bill hearings will be virtual. 


In the House, committee leaders will determine ahead of specific bill hearings if there need to be limits to the number of people who can testify, based on time limitations. The Senate plans to limit the number of people who can testify to a maximum of 20. 


“We had to balance the ability for anybody to Zoom in from wherever they are on any issue with the time constraints that we will be facing this upcoming session,” Ferguson said.


He emphasized that anyone will be able to submit written testimony on legislation.


The full Senate will only meet in person in the Senate chamber in stage three. Senators’ desks will be ensconced in plexiglass barriers on three sides. 


For voting sessions in the House, members will be divided between their chamber in the State House and rooms in the House Office Building nearby. Which members are in which location will be determined by lottery, and proceedings in both will be livestreamed. 


In a memo to House members Thursday, House Speaker Adrienne Jones offered the option for immuno-compromised members to sit in the House gallery, above the floor. A handful of members have asked about this option, according to Jones’ chief of staff, Alexandra Hughes.


Neither the House nor the Senate will meet for a full-chamber voting session for longer than two hours at a time. 


Other safety measures include a requirement that everyone wear masks at all times. Everyone entering the buildings will also be expected to answer a health questionnaire through a new mobile app created by the Department of Legislative Services, though Ferguson said compliance will be voluntary.


COVID-19 tests will be available five days a week in a tent in a parking lot near the House Office Building. Senate members and select staff members will be required to get tested twice a week, while other Senate staff members will be required to get tested once a week. 


“The testing is an absolutely essential protocol that is a fundamental bedrock of this entire operational plan,” Ferguson said. 


At this point, there are no plans to require testing for House members, according to Hughes. 


Senate Minority Leader Bryan Simonaire said the Senate Republican caucus has a few complaints about Ferguson’s plan — for example, they would prefer in-person committee meetings — but ultimately, the important part is being able to meet for the session in some form.


“Many people are hurting because of the COVID-19, and we have to be part of the solution,” Simonaire said. “It is vital that we get back in session that we can help the people.”


Senate and House leaders emphasized a need to be able to adjust to changing circumstances.


“The pandemic is a constantly evolving situation and I want to assure you that we have contingency plans in place should the trends get better or worse,” Jones wrote in her letter.


According to Hughes, the contingency plan of last resort would be a “bubble” approach — similar to the NBA’s tactic earlier this year — in which House members and select staff members isolate themselves in Annapolis.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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