Amid another pandemic wave, West Virginia lawmakers say they do not plan to restart last year’s COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming legislative session.
Gone since April are mask mandates and assigned seating and plexiglass barriers for unmasked lawmakers. At the behest of the Legislature, Gov. Jim Justice lifted in June an executive order limiting public access to the Capitol.
“We do not anticipate any restrictions in the House of Delegates during the upcoming regular legislative session due to COVID, but that is always subject to change based on circumstance, new information and recommendations from local health leaders to the House senior leadership team,” House Communications Director Ann Ali said.
Senate Communications Director Jacque Bland similarly said no changes are planned in the upper chamber.
Last year’s session began as vaccines were just becoming available, prompting steps to mitigate the spread of the virus in the Capitol. Lawmakers were among the first to be eligible for shots.
House officials did not collect information on whether delegates were vaccinated, Ali said. The majority leadership considers that information private, Ali said.
All 11 Democrats in the 34-member Senate have been vaccinated, said Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. The same applies to all 22 Democrats in the 100-member House, said House Minority Leader Doug Skaff Jr., D-Kanawha.
Skaff is president of HD Media, parent company of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Guidelines last year encouraged lawmakers to wear masks. Those who declined spoke from behind a plexiglass barrier in the Senate and sat in House galleries closed to the public and reserved for staff and the news media.
The House required delegates to attend committee meetings in person, while the Senate allowed members to attend remotely.
Between committee meetings, held only in rooms large enough for social distancing, Capitol maintenance staff sanitized chairs, desks and microphones, forcing lawmakers to keep tight schedules.
One case of COVID-19 was reported during last year’s session.
Skaff said the House is unlikely to implement COVID-related protocols during the 2022 session.
“We all see that there is a general sense of pandemic fatigue, and the Legislature is no exception,” Skaff said. “However, as members of the Legislature, we must lead by example. We stand with the governor in encouraging West Virginians to get vaccinated, get boosted and continue to follow pandemic precautions so that we can all get back to normal.”
Baldwin and Skaff said there had been talk of mask requirements in their respective chambers, given the spike in cases and the evolution and spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. Justice said Tuesday the number of omicron cases in West Virginia increased from three to 18. The numbers aren’t “big yet,” he said, but they marked “a big increase in just a few days.”
Baldwin said lawmakers have to take personal responsibility.
“[W]e do have the ability to change our behavior and do what we think is right and lead by example,” Baldwin said. “We go back home every weekend to family members, church members, friends and colleagues, and we don’t want to unknowingly spread COVID back there. We’re concerned about the situation. All we can do is take personal responsibility, and that’s what we plan to do.”