Politics

Vermont House set for hybrid return to the Statehouse next week

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, speaks at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Jan. 4. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The 150-member Vermont House is set to return to the Statehouse in a hybrid fashion next week.

The chamber on Friday greenlit H.R.14, which will allow committees to return to in-person work until at least Feb. 1. Lawmakers who want to continue legislating remotely can do so if they check in with their committee chair.

The measure was adopted after lengthy debate — and the rejection of an amendment, proposed by Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston, that would have kept the all-virtual status quo in place another two weeks.

Those who argued in favor of McCullough’s proposal said that while good, common-sense precautions were in place, they weren’t foolproof, and that the height of a surge was the wrong time to attempt a physical return. 

Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, urged his colleagues to remain remote for now, arguing that asymptomatic transmission and imperfect tests could still see the virus spread through the building. 

“In my mind, this is exactly the wrong time to start coming back in person and it is likely to put additional strain on our healthcare system,” said Till, who works as a physician.

But those who argued against McCullough’s proposal said the underlying resolution was a good compromise. Rep. Mari Cordes, D/P-Lincoln, a nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center, said she was sympathetic to concerns about the risks involved. But H.R.14 allowed individual members enough flexibility to make the decisions that worked best for them, she said.

“I think it speaks to the difficulty of a moment when trying to create rules and policies around an ever-changing viral environment that two of your active health care professionals are now in disagreement about this amendment,” Cordes added, referring to herself and Till.

Rep. Brian Cina, P/D-Burlington, a clinical social worker, argued he understood the necessity of in-person work. As a mental health worker, he’d started seeing clients face-to-face, albeit masked, and, whenever possible, outside. 

But the precautions he has taken haven’t reduced his risk to zero. And in November, he caught Covid-19. In fact, Cina revealed that he had been the person who had unknowingly come to the Statehouse while infectious when lawmakers reconvened for a special session.

Cina argued the risk of catching the virus was worth it when serving his clients. But he said that calculus was much less clear when it came to in-person lawmaking.

“I just don’t think there’s a rush, at the peak of a surge of a more contagious form of a virus, to bring us back in person,” he said.

But still, others argued that many lawmakers felt they needed to get back to work in person to tackle some of the session’s thorniest matters, including redistricting. 

“There are lots of reasons for us to need to do our work in person. There are also many COVID-related reasons why members may need to continue to work remotely,” said Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans City. “And the underlying resolution was designed to strike that balance.”

McCullough’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 112 to 30.

Legislators have tightened Covid-19 protocols for the Capitol complex in recent days. Anyone coming into the Statehouse will be required to wear a mask — which will be offered free of charge at the door — and cloth face coverings will not be considered good enough. Lawmakers will be provided two rapid tests to take at the beginning of each week, and unvaccinated lawmakers must take a PCR test on a weekly basis.

For now, the Senate is remote until Feb. 25, unless lawmakers in the 30-member chamber take action to change course. The Senate Rules Committee, which is next scheduled to meet Thursday, has decided to revisit the question on a weekly basis, according to Carolyn Wesley, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham.

Clarification: Brian Cina does not know where he contracted Covid-19. An earlier version of this story was unclear on that point. 

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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