Lawmakers will work via internet as COVID-19 spreads at the Capitol
Published 5:17 am Friday, January 22, 2021
by Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today
January 21, 2021
Some members of the Mississippi Senate are expected to receive a quarantine notice from the Mississippi State Department of Health, notifying them not to return to the state Capitol until they receive a negative test for COVID-19.
On Thursday morning, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, abruptly adjourned the upper chamber until Monday. After gaveling out, Hosemann told Mississippi Today that one senator had received the quarantine notice. He anticipated others would, though he did not have a number.
Members who receive the notice would be those who had close contact with the two senators — perhaps more — who have contracted COVID-19 the past few days. As of midday Thursday, a third senator was displaying symptoms but had yet to test positive.
At least one House member also has received a positive test, officials told Mississippi Today earlier this week.
The coronavirus is spreading at the Capitol after lawmakers have been in the building since Jan. 5. Though legislative leaders adopted safety guidelines this session, many lawmakers at the Capitol have been regularly seen without masks, and others have held maskless meetings in small spaces. Visitors to the Capitol have also been seen wearing masks improperly or not at all.
Hosemann proposed postponing the 2021 session until later in the year, but that proposal was rejected by House leadership, including Speaker Philip Gunn.
In announcing that proposal in late December, Hosemann cited fears that another outbreak would occur at the Capitol. In June 2020, a COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol infected at least 49 lawmakers, including Hosemann and Gunn, and was responsible for the death of at least one Mississippian.
Before the Senate adjourned for the weekend on Thursday, the Senate Rules Committee announced that when senators return to Jackson on Monday, safety precautions will be strengthened.
Sen. Walter Michel, R-Ridgeland, who is the vice chair of the Rules Committee, said the goal is to post committee agendas online the day before any called meeting. The meetings will be confined to two larger rooms, and the proceedings will be streamed online that can be accessed from the legislative website. In addition, senators can participate in the committee meetings online via Zoom if they choose.
But Michel stressed that in order to establish a quorum for the meetings, enough senators would have to show up in person. They could then leave the room and participate via Zoom. The committee chairs will have the discretion of limiting in-person attendance at the meeting for members of the public if the meeting is being streamed online.
As Michel outlined the new procedures, many senators expressed interest in recessing for a period of time until more vaccinations are administered.
The House will convene in session at 2 p.m. on Thursday, when that chamber is expected to receive an update on the coronavirus.