Vermont House leaders moved Thursday to allow the chamber to meet remotely for at least the first two months of the 2021 legislative session. They also agreed to ditch plans for an in-person opening day ceremony at the Barre Municipal Auditorium.
The moves are the latest in a constantly evolving discussion about whether the legislature will be able to resume normal operations at some point next year, and come as the number of new coronavirus cases in Vermont remain at worrisome levels.
The state reported 136 new cases Thursday, bringing this month's total to more than 1,700.
Members of the House Rules Committee initially voted last month to hold remote meetings through January. But the committee voted Thursday to extend that timeline another month, citing the pandemic’s continued foothold in the state. It also agreed to hold opening day ceremonies remotely, with outgoing House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) citing a recent conversation she had with Health Commissioner Mark Levine in which he advised employers to hold in-person meetings only when "absolutely necessary.”
"One of the points of note is that 100 cases a day is the good news — that there wasn't a big surge above that," Johnson said. "If 100 cases a day is the good news, we're in a very different place than we were in September and October when we started considering and making arrangements for Barre."
There's still a chance that at least a few lawmakers will attend the opening day ceremonies in person.
Johnson floated the idea of having the next speaker — who will almost certainly be Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) — preside over the ceremonies from the Statehouse "so that we invoke the spirit of the House and the many, many sessions that have been gaveled in from that podium." Caucus leaders may also be able to attend, she said.
Yet the vast majority of House lawmakers will begin the session from home.
Reflecting on the change, Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) acknowledged that the legislature's opening day ceremonies involve much pomp and circumstance.
"[But] it is really, to me, more about the recognition of the incredible responsibility of our democratic process," she said. Still, that must be weighed against the threat of the virus and the importance of sending a "unified message" to Vermonters about the need to follow safety protocols, she said.
"It's not an easy decision, but it [is] the right decision," Donahue said.
The Senate Rules Committee also met Thursday to discuss that chamber's plans for the upcoming session.
According to outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), senators still plan to meet remotely through January and have left it up to the full body to make decisions beyond that.
As for opening day ceremonies, Ashe said in an email, the Senate clerk holds the opinion that the Vermont Constitution requires the chamber to adopt rules and begin the session in person. Therefore, senators still plan to meet at the Statehouse on January 6.
The rules committee is now working on a resolution that would allow those with health concerns to be sworn-in remotely. Senators who attend in person, meanwhile, will likely enter the chamber in waves to ensure social distancing.
"With just 30 people to worry about, it’s a more straightforward logistical challenge to deal with than in the House with its 150," Ashe wrote.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.