“I wish we could hold the session in person, I wish we could all be together,” Filler-Corn said in an interview. “But right now it’s too dangerous.”
The state Senate met over the summer in a large conference room at the Science Museum of Virginia, which allowed members to sit far apart to avoid infection. The Senate has not yet announced its plans for January, but with 40 members, it does not face the same scale of logistical issues as the 100-member House.
Filler-Corn faced criticism from Republicans for moving the earlier session online. Members in rural areas complained that their Internet connections were not reliable, and House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said the Zoom meetings limited public participation because not everyone has access to broadband.
But Filler-Corn insisted that meeting online was the safest way to handle the need to convene so many people during a health crisis. She said she had explored options for convening in person, including holding a session outside at the Capitol, but found them to be impractical or unsafe.
The House will hold all its committee and subcommittee meetings through video conference, Filler-Corn said, marking the first time that all subcommittee sessions are live-streamed. House Clerk Suzette Denslow is adding staff and technology to accommodate the far greater volume of legislation that will come in the regular session than in the special session, with plans to allow up to six committees to meet online simultaneously.
Filler-Corn said the House is preparing extra steps to encourage public participation, including an option to submit written comments on pending legislation.
Before announcing her decision Monday, Filler-Corn consulted with the Virginia Department of Health, which recommended the move.
With infections on the rise around the state, “the crowded offices, meeting space, and elevators in the [General Assembly office building] are factors that increase the risk of spreading COVID-19,” Virginia Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver wrote to Filler-Corn. “Based on these factors, VDH, in consultation with the Richmond City Health District, strongly recommends the House of Delegates conduct the 2021 General Assembly session virtually to the greatest extent possible.”
Recent upticks in coronavirus infections around the state led Gov. Ralph Northam (D) last Friday to announce new restrictions on public gatherings heading into Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
Virginia’s seven-day average of positive tests had risen to 7.3 percent as of Monday after hitting as low as 4.7 percent in October. While the Southwest region is seeing the worst spikes, every area of the state is seeing rising infection rates.
Northam ordered gatherings in public spaces limited to 25 people, down from 250, and directed restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. and to close by midnight.
Several members of the House of Delegates have tested positive for the coronavirus, including Del. Tommy Wright (R-Lunenburg), who came down with the virus shortly after the General Assembly gathered in person at the beginning of the August special session.
The House had just moved its work online, and no other members reported being infected.
Meanwhile, Filler-Corn said she is keeping her eye on recent encouraging news about the development of covid-19 vaccines.
“If things change dramatically, we can change the plans,” she said. “But these are the plans as of now, based on science, based on the experts and based on the information we have today.”