The Vermont House on Thursday dropped plans to hold the first day of the legislative session at the Barre Municipal Auditorium and will instead hold opening day proceedings almost entirely remotely.
The House will conduct all business remotely until at least March when it breaks for Town Meeting Day. The Senate is poised to make the same decision in the coming days.
The Senate still plans to conduct business on Jan. 6, the first day of the 2021 session, in the upper chamber of the Statehouse with at least 16 legislators present — the minimum needed for a quorum.
The House, which has 150 members, had planned to allow some legislators to meet on opening day at the Barre Municipal Auditorium, which can accommodate 238 people practicing social distancing requirements, plus 112 more in the basement.
But during a meeting on Thursday, the House Rules Committee voted unanimously to change those plans, deciding instead to meet remotely on Jan. 6.
The move came after House leaders met with Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine. He is advising all employers against meeting in person unless it is absolutely necessary.
“We’re in a very different place than we were in September and October when we started considering and making arrangements for Barre,” said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, noting the state’s increased Covid-19 infection rate.
“And his strong advice to any employer was unless there’s a reason, a very critical reason that you absolutely have to be in person, even being in a space with 6-foot distancing and stuff is not advisable,” she said.
Instead, House lawmakers will be sworn in remotely and only the leaders of the Democratic, Progressive and Republican caucuses will gather in the House chamber.
In the Senate, lawmakers plan to convene in-person on Day One of the session, but will take the oath of office in small groups in the Senate chamber.
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, the presumptive leader of the Senate, said senators will be spaced out in rooms throughout the building. The Senate has 30 members.
“We would never ever want to do anything that runs afoul of the recommendations, but we felt like keeping people in small groups, certainly at least 6 feet apart and in some of those satellite rooms are going to allow us to keep everybody safe and within the guidelines,” Balint said.
She said the vast majority of senators have said they would like to attend the first day of the session in-person. Others will have the option of being sworn in remotely.
The House Rules Committee also voted Thursday to continue remote work through the last week in February. Previously, the House and Senate had decided to stay out of the Statehouse in January.
Balint said the Senate Rules Committee will be meeting soon to discuss the month of February and will likely make the same move as the House.
“I anticipate that our decision, in all likelihood, will mirror the decision that the House made, but we haven’t had that discussion yet,” she said.
The two chambers also plan to hold a largely remote joint assembly to swear in elected officials including the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state on Jan. 7.
The ceremony will be held in the House chamber as usual, but with limited in-person attendance.
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