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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Under The Virtual Dome? Vt. Lawmakers Ponder Pandemic Space For Next Session

Statehouse.jpg
Angela Evancie
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VPR File
The Vermont Statehouse is not set up for the physical distancing requirements brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, an architectural firm has found.

As Vermont lawmakers look ahead to next year, they're going through some of the same options as schools. They're asking if they should they meet remotely, in-person or a combination of the two.

The Legislature has met and voted online since April. A new study looks at the space needed to keep everybody safe and physically distant during the pandemic. The study was first reported by Seven Days.

Architect Jesse Beck led the study done by the Burlington firm Freeman French Freeman. He told the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions recently that there are not many options that allow 180 legislators to get together safely. Becks said that the current statehouse – first occupied in 1859 – just won't work.

“When evaluating this, we started out with the Statehouse and started drawing our capacity circles into the various rooms,” he said. “And very quickly [we] understood, that there's no way there could be a full return to the Statehouse.”

"Very quickly [we] understood, that there's no way there could be a full return to the Statehouse." — Jesse Beck, architect

Beck's report said the Barre auditorium is the only nearby space large enough to accommodate a joint assembly of the House and Senate.

Retrofitting that building – normally home to high school basketball tournaments and an annual gun show – would not be cheap. The report says it would cost $85,948 for upgrades if lawmakers just wanted to meet briefly in joint session to hear the governor’s budget address and another $132, 319 for a full four-month session.

The report found there’s enough space available around Montpelier and the state office complex in Waterbury for legislative committees to meet.

Catherine Benham, the chief operating officer for the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office, said there's no perfect answer.

“One of the trade-offs is, if you think about a full return of the Legislature, you know, [if] you're not all centrally located, the logistics and expenses get to be more,” she said. “If you do more of a hybrid, you're closer together, possibly physically and it may cost less, but you may have to share more rooms.”

More from VPR: 'I Think Mitzi Might Need To Be Unmuted': Listen To Vermont Lawmakers (Try To) Work Remotely

The 30-member Senate could still safely meet in the Statehouse itself according to Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican from Caledonia County.

“The overwhelming numbers of people in the House create a problem all by itself,” said Benning, who chairs the Senate Institutions Committee. “The idea of dividing and conquering our problem may be a way of thinking about this long-term. My concern is that we’re trying to get both bodies into the building in some fashion.”

Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, the chair of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, didn’t go for that option. She said the two chambers should be working together, in the same place, physically or virtually.

With Benning’s proposal, “the optics are that there’s only one body that’s then in the Statehouse, and not the other body,” Emmons said. “And that’s an issue, because we’re equal branches.”

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