Rep. Patty McCoy, Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe on Friday at a meeting of the Joint Rules Committee
Updated Saturday, March 14, at 8:53 a.m.
Vermont lawmakers voted Friday to shut down the Statehouse for at least a week to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
At the close of Friday's session, the legislature plans to adjourn until Tuesday, March 24. The suspension of the session could be extended if circumstances require. The Senate approved the decision on a voice vote early Friday afternoon, and the House followed suit hours later.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said the legislature was taking the extraordinary measure in order to protect public safety. She said legislative staff were exploring ways lawmakers could continue to do essential work remotely in the weeks and possibly months ahead.
“Whatever we can do to prevent the exponential increase in infection is critical,” she told reporters Friday afternoon at the Statehouse.
Johnson said the fact that those infected with the COVID-19 virus could be contagious for days without having any symptoms was “really frightening” and merited the action.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told reporters that lawmakers struggled with the decision but opted to err on the side of preventing the further spread of the virus. “We had to make a bold choice to increase public safety as best we could,” he said.
Because next year’s state budget does not need to be signed into law until July 1, Ashe said, the legislature had “some breathing room” to figure out how to conduct its business remotely while the Statehouse remains closed. Any legislative meetings held by phone or video technology would be open to the public and the press, he added, and no votes would be taken.
“Just because this is extraordinary times doesn’t mean we would not be casting votes in public,” Ashe said.
Legislative leaders had considered taking a longer, two-week break to more closely align with the presumed incubation period of the virus, which has sickened at least two Vermonters and is expected to infect many more. But the eight-member, bipartisan Joint Rules Committee opted for the shorter span Friday morning after agreeing that the panel could easily extend the break if necessary.
“My preference would be to take a week, do a deep cleaning and figure out where to go from there,” Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) said.
The Joint Rules Committee directed all Statehouse employees to be paid at their normal rate during the break.
Rep. Patty McCoy and Speaker Mitzi Johnson on the House floor Friday
The committee’s decision Friday morning followed a discussion about how lawmakers might be able to communicate and even deliberate bills away from the building. State staff said they were exploring how committee assistants could convene webinars or video conferences in which lawmakers and the public could participate remotely.
Details of those arrangements have not been finalized.
“The goal is to reduce the number of people we each have contact with,” Johnson said. “This can be a crowded building.”
The Joint Rules Committee agreed it would hold daily conference calls during the break, including on weekends, during the break. Those calls, too, would be open to the public.
Lawmakers also discussed prioritizing only legislation vital to keeping the state operating, with several saying they expected the break would extend longer than a week.
Johnson announced the decision on the House floor Friday morning. She advised representatives to clean off their desks at the end of the day and take home what they may need for the foreseeable future.
“Our expectation is that the Statehouse will be completely shut down during that time,” she said. “Your badges will be turned off. The Statehouse will be very thoroughly cleaned.”
Johnson emphasized that legislative leaders were seeking to balance the demands of state government and the health of those who make it function.
“We recognize that this situation will get worse before it gets better, so we’re trying to prepare ways for people to access our democracy while keeping everybody safe throughout the state,” she said.
Late Friday, Ashe explained on the Senate floor why he was recommending such drastic action.
“I think the anxiety of the decision-making suffers as all of the little wildfires start popping up, in terms of staff and legislative and public anxiety about being able to conduct our work normally,” he said. “All sorts of decisions are being made based on the anxiety that people are feeling. So this will give us a chance to take a week, assess the situation and make decisions about how the rest of our work this session will unfold.”
Ashe said that the Joint Rules Committee would extend the annual “crossover” deadline by which bills must move from one chamber to the other on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, he urged senators to consider their priorities in the event that “only some legislation is making it to the finish line.” He said committees could also be asked “to step up” if needed to take action quickly to respond to the outbreak.
Not all of Ashe’s colleagues agreed with the decision to adjourn.
“I suspect many of my constituents will feel like we’re deserting them by leaving,” Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said on the Senate floor. “I feel strongly that this is not the right time.”
Sears said he thought it would be more prudent to wait for the Department of Health to formally advise the legislature to halt its operations. He said there was “a great deal of confusion” about the legislature’s status and expressed worry over the feasibility of remote work.
Ashe responded by arguing that the confusion was “precisely why we’re taking the action that we’re taking.” He also defended the Joint Rules Committee’s recommendation.
“We knew no matter what we do there is no right decision,” he said. “There is just our best judgment about what to do, and my feeling is that I would rather do the thing that we know will protect the most people’s health, rather than take more risky chances to avoid some of the awkward transition moments that we’re about to embark upon.”
Ashe said that if a constituent asked him why he wasn’t at the Statehouse, “I’m going to say, ‘Because I wanted to save people’s lives.’”
As Ashe spoke from the Senate floor, Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) shook her head in apparent displeasure. The previous evening, Clarkson had urged her Senate colleagues not to adjourn but to "lead by example and soldier on."
After Friday’s vote, she said she was grateful for her colleagues' work but would have preferred to first pass some key pieces of legislation to address the state’s needs as it grapples with the outbreak.
“We’d just rather have gotten some things done for our constituents, a vast number of whom we know have no savings,” Clarkson said.
Before adjourning Friday, the House backed two proposals that lawmakers say would help the state address the crisis. One would make it easier for health agencies to respond. The other would bolster unemployment benefit protections for workers and employers impacted by the disease.
The House Health Care Committee spent Thursday and Friday hashing out a 47-page amendment that would waive some regulations on health care facilities in the event that Gov. Phil Scott declares a state of emergency — which he did on Friday evening.
Rep. Lori Houghton (D-Essex Junction), the committee’s ranking member, said the proposal would help hospitals prop up facilities to combat the crisis. It would also allow retired medical professionals with valid licenses from other states to join the workforce, and would give the Agency of Human Services authority to direct money to health care providers without some of the bureaucratic red tape that can slow down the process.
The amendment would also help more Vermonters access telehealth services, which enable people to receive medical advice without having to travel to a primary care office, thus cutting down on potential exposures.
"If the virus spreads like people are expecting it, then this really will help," Houghton said.
The second proposal looks to ensure that workers who miss time due to the coronavirus — whether because they are sick or caring for a loved one — have access to unemployment benefits. It also would prevent employers who need to close temporarily due to the disease from seeing a hike in their contributions as long as they rehire their employees at a later date.
Rep. Michael Marcotte (R-Coventry), whose House Commerce and Economic Development Committee drafted the amendment, said the goal was to "make sure Vermonters are taken care of."
“This will give businesses the ability to close temporarily while this is going on, and to give their employees the opportunity to not gather together, to self-quarantine,” Marcotte said on the House floor.
The Senate did not expect to take up either measure before adjourning, but could do so upon its return. Johnson said that she along with Senate leadership and the Scott administration agreed that waiting to finalize the measures would let the legislature "fine-tune" the proposals based on any changes at the federal level.
The House also unanamiously passed a resolution urging the federal government to refrain from detaining undocumented immigrants in health care settings during the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
"It is imperative that the treatment of COVID-19 be as robust as possible and not be hampered on account of fear on the part of immigrants to seek immediate medical care," the resolution reads.
Rep. Emily Long listening to the House debate on Friday
Scott was planning to hold a press conference in Montpelier late Friday afternoon to update the public on the state’s response to the pandemic. On his way out of the Statehouse on Friday morning, following a meeting with Ashe and Johnson, he weighed in on the legislature’s decision to adjourn.
“I fully support what they’re doing, appreciate that they’ve been keeping me apprised of their action, and we’ll work with them,” the governor said. “We’ll get through this. That’s the part that everyone has to understand: We’re all in this together, and we’ll figure our way out of this.”
Scott declined to say what he would announce later Friday, but he urged Vermonters to stay calm. “We’ve got a great team in place, and we’re doing all we can to react appropriately.” (Read about his announcementhere.)
The legislature’s decision on Friday followed a series of meetings lawmakers held Thursday to discuss responses to the rapidly moving public health crisis.
Some seemed torn between their obligation to pass legislation that would help their constituents in a time of crisis and the growing realization that the longer the 180 lawmakers — many of whom are over 60 years old — stayed in session, the greater the chances they’d be contributing to the epidemic.
“Chances are probably very good that someone in the Statehouse has this now, and we’ll find out in a week or two, max,” Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) said.
Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) agreed that acting sooner was smarter given the speed of the virus’ spread in places such as Italy.
“What’s worse? For us to lead by example and know that that will be really hard for our people, or for us to soldier on and be tough about it and actually shoot ourselves in the foot?” Pearson said. “Everything that I’m reading suggests that retreating sooner is better.”
Others openly worried about the message that shutting down the legislature would send to the broader community.
“If the statehouse closes, what closes next? What’s the chain reaction?” asked Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans).
If schools and businesses close, then employees would struggle to make mortgage and utility payments, he argued, and many wouldn’t have the luxury of holing up in their homes to avoid the virus.
“I’m not going to stay hidden in my house,” Rodgers said. “I’ve got to go out and make some money, which most Vermonters have to do.”
He and others questioned whether they would really be more isolated from the virus out in their communities compared to continuing to meet in the Statehouse, especially given that, as of Friday, tour groups, concerts, press conferences and other such gatherings were suspended.
Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) said that when she went back to her home in Putney, she wouldn’t be sitting around the house. She’d be going to the supermarket and working and living her life.
“So, are we safer going back there than we are coming here?” she asked.
Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) said he preferred to err on the side of getting some key legislation passed before any break.
“I think it’s premature to close down,” he said. “We’ve got some work to do for our people before everything goes to pot.”
But Ashe said lawmakers were bumping up against the practical realities of how they would get work done when witnesses and capital staff were reluctant to attend Statehouse committee meetings.
“At what moment does it become essentially impossible to do the work even if we choose to stay here and soldier on?” Ashe asked Thursday evening.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.