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Virginia GOP leaders shun coronavirus safety measures

This year’s Virginia House of Delegates legislative session will be held in person without mask or vaccine mandates under new Republican leadership.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — As Virginia breaks daily Covid-19 infection records, the state’s upcoming annual legislative session will do away with Democrat-backed safety measures.

Incoming Republican House Speaker Delegate Todd Gilbert announced the 2022 rules for his chamber via press release Friday afternoon, saying the state had “made a great deal of progress in mitigating the pandemic” but "Covid will be with us."

“It is 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,” he added.

The rules ask anyone who is showing Covid-19 symptoms to “refrain from entering the Capitol or Pocahontas Building,” the business building where legislators’ offices and committee meetings are held. 

Gilbert also “strongly encouraged” those wishing to enter the buildings to “practice good health and safety,” which includes wearing face masks “as needed,” hand washing frequently, and other well-known measures.

He said he shared the outlook of incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, who has similarly shunned mandates and instead shared his preference for encouraging vaccines and booster shots. 

“Vaccines may not prevent every case of Covid but they are extremely effective in turning what could be a life-threatening illness into something much less severe,” Gilbert said. 

Gilbert’s approach stands in stark contrast to past pandemic-era House sessions controlled by Democrats and held during similar surges. A brief special session, held shortly after the first outbreak, took place outdoors. Two more sessions were held entirely remote. One short in-person session was held to allocate federal coronavirus relief funds, however the public’s access to that session was limited. 

The Virginia Senate, still controlled by Democrats, has met in person throughout the pandemic, but senators set up shop in a local museum to allow for social distancing and required masks for all legislators. A separate building was established for the public to meet with legislators, but the public was not allowed to attend Senate floor sessions. 

This year, both state senators and representatives will be at the Capitol building.

Under the new House rules, reduced capacity limits for elevators will remain in place and plexiglass barriers will be erected for employees in high traffic areas. Committee meetings will also be held exclusively in one of six larger meeting rooms. Legislators who have to isolate because of Covid-19 will be able to participate remotely pending approval from House leadership.

While those who are exposed to someone who has tested positive will be encouraged to wear a face mask, the new rules say no quarantine is needed if you are boosted following exposure. The unboosted who are exposed are advised to quarantine for five days, but are not required to.

The new rules come as the Virginia Department of Health reports its highest infection rates since the pandemic began, with over 65,000 confirmed infections and another 30,000 presumed since the start of the year. Newer data from the New York Times suggests over 10,000 new infections daily since Jan. 1.

Deaths linked to the virus are not as high as previous peaks, but hospitalization rates are bleak. In January 2021, the state reported just over 3,000 people hospitalized, only about 100 more than what it is currently reporting just seven days into this month.

“Amidst the unprecedented surges driven by the delta and omicron Covid variants, we are working with Senate Republicans and Senate staff to create an environment in which we can complete the important work of the people while staying safe and healthy,” said Senate Majority Leader Democrat Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, in a statement following Gilbert's announcement.

Democrats lost the Virginia House, along with all three statewide seats – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general – last November. 

Moments before Gilbert released his plan, the outgoing House Speaker, Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn, called for more stringent measures, including vaccine and mask mandates. 

“This pandemic is still affecting Virginians across the commonwealth and they deserve and need a legislature that is able to stay on the job and address the challenges they face,” she said in a statement. 

In another statement Friday afternoon, Filler-Corn shared Senate leadership’s concerns.

“It falls short of using all the tools at our disposal to keep the legislature running effectively,” she said of Gilbert's plan.  

The Virginia Legislature itself has not been spared by the pandemic, which has killed over 800,000 Americans since it began in early 2020.

Republican state Senator Ben Chafin, who oversaw rural Lebanon, passed away from Covid-19 on Jan. 1, 2021. His daughter has since advocated for vaccines locally. 

“We are fatherless because of Covid,” Sophie Chafin Vance told TV station WJHL in September.

The 2022 Virginia General Assembly session starts next Wednesday, Jan. 12.

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