Delaware House and Senate leaders announced Friday that all legislative committees will meet virtually throughout the month of January when the General Assembly returns to session Tuesday, Jan. 11.
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, and Senate President Dave Sokola, D-Newark, said the decision was made in response to the “significant increase in COVID-19 cases and extremely contagious nature of the Omicron variant.”
By holding committee meetings virtually, the leaders said, the General Assembly hopes to limit exposure, mitigate the spread of the virus and preserve a continuity of government.
But Republican Senate leaders say that they weren’t consulted in the decision and are disappointed in the announcement.
“We were dismayed to learn that the General Assembly would be returning to session in a mostly virtual format,” the statement from Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, and Whip Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said. “Seeing as the Omicron variant’s symptoms are reportedly very mild coupled with the fact that the majority of Delawareans are fully vaccinated, we had hoped to begin session in person and believe that we should.”
According to a press release announcing the decision, members of the public will be able to attend all virtual committee meetings and deliver comments on pending legislation.
Links to register for each meeting will be posted on the General Assembly’s website. Scheduling information, agendas and other details also will be posted on the “Committee Meetings” pages for each chamber.
Schwartzkopf said that while he misses the normal activity of Legislative Hall, ensuring the health and safety of legislators, staff and the public is his top priority.
“The work of the General Assembly is critical, and we want to reduce the chances of an outbreak, which could potentially cripple the operations of this branch of government,” he said. “There are reasonable steps we can take in the short-term to protect everyone and continue our work.”
Schwartzkopf said he’s hopeful the current spike in COVID-19 cases is temporary and that House and Senate leadership will re-evaluate the General Assembly’s plans in March.
Joe Fulgham, director of policy and communications for the House Republican Caucus, echoed Schwartzkopf’s sentiment.
“While we would like the state legislature to return to the way it has traditionally operated, the current conditions involving the spread of COVID make that impractical and imprudent,” Fulgham said. “Hopefully, this latest spike is the virus’s last significant surge and we can return to normal operations later in the year.”
Both the House and Senate will meet in person at Legislative Hall on Thursdays to consider legislative agendas throughout January.
On session days, a limited number of seats in the gallery of each chamber will be available to members of the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors to Legislative Hall will open one hour before voting is scheduled to begin on those days.
Members of the public and legislators will be required to wear a mask while in Legislative Hall.
Legislative proceedings will continue to be broadcast online via the General Assembly website.
Access to the remainder of the building will be restricted. Members of the public will not have access to the wings of the building or the legislative library. The cafeteria will remain closed for service.
“I think every one of us had hoped the pandemic outlook and the format of our legislative session would be different this January, but the sudden spike in COVID cases combined with the highly contagious nature of the Omicron [variant] demands that we take steps to protect our continuity of governance,” Sokola said.
“My sincere hope is we can revisit these policies later in the year, but for now we all need to make decision[s] that protect the health and welfare of our guests and employees.”
UPDATED: This story was updated to include a statement from Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker and Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn.
Charlie Megginson covers government and politics for Town Square LIVE News. Reach him at (302) 344-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cmegginson4.
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