Masks will likely continue to be the order of the day when Vermont lawmakers return to Montpelier January 4 for the legislative session. Everyone, including members of the public, must wear one inside the Statehouse and some nearby buildings in the capitol complex under a draft plan approved Wednesday by the Joint Legislative Rules committee.
The panel also agreed to a policy that would give employees the choice of showing a vaccination card or getting regular COVID-19 tests.
Vermont is struggling to control its highest COVID-19 infection rate yet. Hospitalizations caused by the Delta variant have increased by a factor of 10 since mid-July, and last week the state set a record for new daily infections, 740. The state reported about 350 new cases Wednesday.
Vermont hasn’t yet reported any cases of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday that the United States could experience a heavy surge of Omicron infections in January.
The panel’s recommendations will now be considered separately in coming days by the House and Senate Rules Committees. Whatever those bodies decide, Joint Rules will reconvene on December 28.
“Everything is fluid; we don’t know what is going to happen with Omicron,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) on Wednesday evening. “We fully anticipate that the conditions will shift again, so on the 28th we’ll meet again and see whether what they are putting into place still makes sense.”
Joint Rules has been working on the draft policy for several months. Its goal is to keep the Statehouse open for business but limit risk to lawmakers, the complex’s 100 or so employees and the public.
Under the draft approved Wednesday, lawmakers and their staff would be asked to get a rapid COVID-19 test the day before and the day of a return to the Statehouse.
They’d also be asked to show proof of a “fully protected” vaccine status, meaning two doses for vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna's or one for Johnson & Johnson's, or to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test every week. The requirement does not include a booster shot.
If lawmakers and staff don't have that proof, they could attest they have the required shots. Religious exemptions could be made.
Members of the public, too, would be asked, but not required, to show proof of vaccination. They’d also be asked to perform a rapid COVID-19 test — provided at the Statehouse— and obtain a negative result.
Rep. Patricia McCoy (R-Poultney) told fellow committee members Wednesday that she worried the testing policy would deter people from participating in the legislative process. She noted that other public places, like restaurants and Walmart, do not require tests.
“My concern is with the public and the people's House, which they own. It’s a public structure that they pay for,” McCoy said. “I just don’t know what the optics are of, ‘Stop, you need to go somewhere to take a rapid test to get a pass to come back in.'”
Left unresolved for now is the question of how to address a lawmaker who refuses both the vaccine and testing.
“We’ll have to discuss that in each chamber’s rules committee,” Balint said.
It’s also not clear what would happen if a lawmaker were to test positive for COVID-19 and needs to work — and vote — remotely.
Meanwhile, under the draft policy, visitors would be allowed into committee rooms as they were before the pandemic. The benefits of opening the building for personal interaction outweigh the risks, at least right now, Balint said.
“There are many reasons to work together in person if at all possible,” she said. “We do better work when we’re in person. But of course, if at any point [House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington)] or I feel like it isn’t safe, we’d recommend we move to a remote session. We have the capability to do that very quickly.”