Statehouse Vaccine Mandates, A Potential October Session: The Latest From 'Ask Bob'
After meeting remotely through the 2021 legislative session, Vermont lawmakers hope to return to the Statehouse in January for the 2022 session in person. But the recent rise in COVID-19 cases is causing legislative leaders to balance public participation in the democratic process with safety concerns.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel about what lawmakers are planning for the upcoming sessions, and the possibility that lawmakers could meet before January to address the ongoing pandemic. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: This is really a fluid situation here, with the uncertainty surrounding the future of the COVID-19 delta surge in Vermont. But as of right now, what are lawmakers hoping to do for the 2022 session?
Bob Kinzel: Mitch, the goal right now is for both the House and the Senate to meet in person at the Statehouse, if at all possible. And plans are being made to accomplish this goal. But: We know a lot can happen in the next three and a half months regarding the COVID pandemic.
Now, if the number of cases continues to rise around the state, and if we see an increasing number of so called breakthrough cases — those cases where fully vaccinated people are getting infected — then the legislative Rules Committee will reevaluate the entire situation, and make a recommendation based on the most recent health data that's available.
But, right now, there is a preliminary decision for lawmakers to return to the Statehouse in January, understanding that things could change.
Well, why do legislative leaders feel it's so important to return to the Statehouse and meet in person?
You know, Mitch, I think there's a really strong feeling that personal contact is a key part of the legislative process. And that having the opportunity to discuss issues with colleagues, face to face, either in a committee room or in the hallways of the Statehouse, is really important to the consideration of legislation.
Springfield Rep. Alice Emmons is the chair of the House Institutions Committee, and she recently told the Joint Rules Committee that lawmakers were able to function pretty well last session on a remote basis, using the Zoom technology. But Emmons says there's no substitute for being able to meet in person:
“Our legislative process is really based on us all working face to face, and building relationships with each other. And Zoom could carry us through in the interim, but to continue may have some real detrimental effects in terms of how we operate as a general assembly.”
- Rep. Alice Emmons
Lawmakers have decided to continue to make all their floor sessions and committee meetings available on Zoom, to give additional access to members of the public. That'll happen even if they come back to meet in person. And they'll be using roughly $900,000 of federal stimulus money to pay for this video upgrade.
Well, Bob, what kinds of physical accommodations will have to be made in order to allow for full public participation, while also maintaining important safety concerns at the statehouse?
Mitch, there some short-term and long-term proposals being looked at.
In the short term, the idea is to improve the ventilation in the House chamber and Senate chamber, and also the smaller committee rooms.
Right now, at this time, anyone entering the Statehouse must wear a mask. Lawmakers may also consider a plan to require all visitors to show proof of vaccination, or proof of a recent negative COVID test, to come into the Statehouse. But they haven't wanted to go so far just yet. But it's a requirement they're going to be looking at as they look at the health data in the next couple of weeks or so.
In addition, there are also plans to possibly have a large expansion at the Statehouse. Now, the last expansion at the Statehouse took place in the [late] 1980s. And now the pandemic seems to be accelerating plans for another expansion.
I think it's generally felt that many of the committee rooms aren't large enough any longer to accommodate committee members, lobbyists, the media members of the public, and the pandemic has really highlighted some serious problems with the ventilation systems. They're going to deal with that in the short term. But a lot of lawmakers are thinking, “Hey, these are long-term problems, and maybe we should wait for those long-term solutions, until we consider a proposal to expand the Statehouse again.”
Bob, you mentioned mask-wearing at the Statehouse. And some legislative leaders have been very critical of Gov. Phil Scott's decision not to impose a statewide mask policy for all schools in Vermont. I'm wondering what steps leaders are considering to put this kind of mask mandate in place?
Mitch, this is a fascinating issue, because lawmakers don't have a lot of authority in this debate, but they do have one option, and that's to call a special session to consider a bill to require masks in all schools.
Now usually, only the governor has the legal authority to call lawmakers back into a special session. The Legislature cannot call itself back.
But, in their adjournment resolution in May, legislative leaders inserted language that allows the Legislature to come back in October to deal with the allocation of any new federal stimulus money. So, the door is definitely open. Lawmakers gave themselves the authority to come back.
Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint told me it's a major undertaking to bring all 180 lawmakers back to Montpelier. But it would be considered if the number of infected students starts to increase dramatically in the coming weeks.
“What is happening now, among a lot of parents that I talked to, is they don't see the administration pivoting to address their concerns, which is: What is going to happen if we have increased rates of infections amongst children who are not vaccinated, who then come down with long haul COVID symptoms?”
- Senate President Prom Tem Becca Balint
So you can see Mitch, there are many big decisions that are essentially on hold until it's more clear what direction this delta variant is going to take in Vermont.