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Covid quarantines put brakes on Virginia GOP agenda

Several members of the Virginia House of Delegates are working remotely under new rules that only allow them to do so if they have Covid-19 symptoms.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Covid-related quarantines are holding up legislative efforts in the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates, after the new GOP leadership rolled back safety protocols.

While not confirming or denying positive coronavirus cases, House GOP spokesperson Garren Shipley pointed to rule changes announced earlier this month which limited remote legislative work to those isolating because of Covid-19 infection or exposure. 

Three members of the chamber worked remotely this week: Republican Delegates Rob Bell and Otto Wachsmann and Democrat Karrie Delaney. Attempts to reach the delegates about their Covid status were not returned by press time. 

Shipley said he needed clarification from leadership as to why elected officials were not announcing their status to the public. 

“Naturally, the chairman of courts committee does not wish to begin the business of the courts committee when he’s not in the room,” Shipley said of Bell, who chairs the powerful Virginia House Courts of Justice Committee, which has canceled its meetings all week.

The Virginia General Assembly meets for a few months every year. Though Shipley acknowledged the legislative holdup caused by lawmakers working remotely, he suggested it would have little impact on the recently elected majority’s agenda. 

“The bill load is surprisingly light this year,” he said of how fewer meetings might be needed overall. “There’s really no need to have a committee come in and do [hearings on a single bill].” 

He also suggested the GOP's lack of power in the last two years would require a kind of refresher on managing a body Republicans controlled for almost two decades before losing their majority to Democrats in 2019. 

“We want to get out and run some drills, get into game time,” Shipley said. 

When Republican House Speaker Delegate Todd Gilbert first announced the rule changes on Jan. 7, he said it was “crucial that we not only get the people’s business done in a timely manner, but we do so in an open and transparent fashion, while operating in as regular of order as possible.”

Questions sent to Gilbert on how committee meeting delays have impacted legislative business were not returned by press time, but Shipley said he did not expect rule changes as of Wednesday morning. 

Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, who was sworn in Saturday, ran against mask mandates and has since issued an executive order giving parents a choice to not mask their children in schools. The order follows record numbers of Virginia teachers and students being absent from in-school learning as the omicron variant surges through the state. 

The new governor’s effort is already being challenged by a group of parents in Chesapeake. They argue Youngkin lacks the authority to supersede a 2021 bill requiring adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and local school boards’ decisions to enforce the mask requirements included as part of those rules. 

Virginia Beach attorney Kevin Martingayle, who is representing the parents’ in their suit filed Tuesday at the Supreme Court of Virginia, said the issues facing the legislature speak to the need for Youngkin to rethink his executive order. 

“The surge in Covid infections, including at the General Assembly, provides further justification for revoking [the executive order],” Martingayle said in a text message. 

Attempts to reach Youngkin for questions about state lawmaker quarantines and the school masking order were not returned by press time. 

The House Courts of Justice Committee is far from the only panel that has canceled meetings since the legislative session started a week ago. Committees on agriculture, the environment and natural resources, elections, energy and commerce, and, perhaps ironically, health, welfare and institutions all had this week’s hearings called off as of Wednesday morning.

The 2022 legislative session runs through mid-March.

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