Statehouse leaders and staff are putting together contingency plans for coronavirus, even as they acknowledge that the variables are almost infinite.
“This is constantly changing,” said Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham. “A decision we make today might be very different tomorrow or next week.”
On Saturday night, state officials announced Vermont’s first presumptive case of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.
As the Legislature returned from Town Meeting break Tuesday morning, leaders held a series of preparedness meetings. By then, signs had been posted throughout the building that advise people to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently, and stay home if they’re sick.
The latter creates problems for lawmakers, who take their responsibilities very seriously — and often work through illness. If they’re not present for committee hearings, their voices can’t be heard. And they have to be physically present to cast floor votes in the House and Senate.
Another complicating factor: Many lawmakers are in their golden years, and are at high risk for serious illness or even death. Do they stay away until the danger passes? “That’s very concerning to me,” Balint said. “The tension for us is, how do we maintain our traditions when we may have to be flexible?”
Johnson cautioned that “We’re not at that point yet.” But she told a morning meeting of the House Rules Committee that guidelines must be set for accommodating lawmakers who are sick or at elevated risk.
“It’s easily done for committees,” she said. “I have no idea how it would be done for the full House.”
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The extreme scenario would involve dealing with the absolute essentials and then going home. Lawmakers must pass four money measures — budget and tax bills, a capital spending plan and a transportation bill.
“I’m sending a signal to chairs with big bills: Do not dilly-dally,” Johnson said. “I’d really like to not have to manage getting 150 people to vote if the situation gets worse.”
Capitol Police Chief Matthew Romei said his unit has been conducting an inventory of off-site meeting spaces — mostly for committees, but also for the full House or Senate. He has identified six sites “within the region” large enough to accommodate the 150-member House.
When completed, the inventory will be a resource for any committee that wants to hold remote hearings in any part of the state.
Statehouse officials cautioned that it’s not time for drastic action — but it is time to prepare for any contingency, while balancing the people’s business with public health.
As Balint observed, “None of us wants to be the vector.”
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