RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The next Virginia House speaker and the outgoing speaker agree that COVID-19 won’t be out of our lives soon, but they differ on the safety policies that the 100-member chamber should follow during the 2022 legislative session.
The current speaker, Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn (Fairfax), on Friday called for state delegates and staff to be fully vaccinated, including booster shots, or follow a mask mandate on the House floor and in other facilities with weekly testing.
“As COVID-19 infections rise across Virginia, it is vital the House put in place measures to ensure that it can complete the critical work deserved by Virginians in the upcoming Session,” Filler-Corn said in a statement.
Moments after Filler-Corn’s announcement, incoming Republican House speaker Todd Gilbert (Shenandoah) laid out his own plan. Gilbert said the House of Delegates will meet in person for the upcoming session and is encouraging, not requiring, those planning to interact with the General Assembly to get vaccinated.
“Like Governor-elect Youngkin, I urge every Virginian to be vaccinated and, when appropriate, get a booster. 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 in a statement.
With a 52-48 majority in the new Virginia House, the GOP will have the authority to implement their rules once the legislative session starts on Jan. 12.
Gilbert added that in-person testimony during committee meetings will continue, but a virtual option will remain in place. People showing COVID-19 symptoms are asked to take part online and KN95 masks will be available to those who enter the Capitol or Pocahontas Building.
The House’s policies will also make temperature screenings available at all entrances and throughout the buildings and Capitol Police will monitor building capacities during the session.
These rules are in stark contrast to the proposals Filler-Corn has called for, which include mandatory reporting and testing for potential symptoms and an option for members who test positive or are exposed to the virus to vote remotely. The Democrat, the first woman to serve as Virginia House speaker, also called for the speaker to be allowed to convene the chamber virtually if needed.
“As we work to turn the corner on this pandemic and keep Virginia open and healthy, the protocols I have called for today, in addition to those already put in place, will help keep the House in Session on behalf of the people of Virginia as well as protect Members and staff, their families, and the communities they return to,” Filler-Corn said.
Virginia Democrats, still in control of the state Senate with a 21-19 majority, announced the chamber’s own COVID-19 rules on Friday. The caucus is supporting mask and vaccine requirements for state senators and others in the chamber and will require members of the public to only take part virtually.
“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,” Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said Friday.
Cases have continued to rise across the commonwealth after the holiday season and the emergence of Omicron. Virginia reported 18,309 new cases on Friday and 3,329 hospitalizations, the one-day record for hospitalizations since the onset of the pandemic, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.