Assembly leaders announce steps to ensure ‘social distancing’ in Annapolis

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The presiding officers of the Maryland General Assembly announced Thursday morning that they are taking steps to protect the public — and their members — from the outbreak of COVID-19.

In simultaneous discussions in their legislative chambers, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) told their colleagues that beginning Friday, the legislature would move to ban rallies and receptions in Annapolis for the duration of the legislative session, which ends April 6.

Jones and Ferguson also said that beginning next week, only bill sponsors will be allowed to testify in person during bill hearings; members of the public and interest groups will still be able to submit written testimony electronically.

Ferguson said public tours of the State House and legislative buildings would also be canceled until at least early April. He called the new policies “precautionary measures for us to be taking so we can complete our work through the duration of session.”

“We are going to continue to operate as normal,” Ferguson added. “We are going to do the people’s business. But we’re going to take social distancing steps.”

Jones said that legislative leaders are working closely with the governor and Department of Health.

She has asked that delegates limit their attendance at community gatherings when not in Annapolis “out of [an] abundance of caution.”

“All things change and evolve,” Jones said before telling lawmakers to continue washing their hands and to “counterintuitive[ly]” practice social distancing.

Ferguson said that in a “time of great angst and anxiety,” lawmakers should be role models for the public and businesses in the state.

Here is the full text of a memo Jones and Ferguson issued Thursday morning “to Members of the General Assembly and the Public”:

“In light of the Governor’s declaration of a public health emergency, and the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus, we have decided to end all public gatherings which are not related to the direct work of the functioning of the Legislature’s Committee and floor work. In addition, beginning next week, all bill hearings until Sine Die will be sponsor only. Members are encouraged to take electronic testimony from the public and upload into the system for citizens that do not want to travel to Annapolis.

“This was not an easy decision to make. This decision is made for public health reasons – to do everything we can to increase social distancing and do everything within our power to ensure that we can limit the risk of the spread of this virus.

“In these times of uncertainty, we want to emphasize that it is critical that elected officials and members of the public do not panic, and rely on official health sources such as the Centers for Disease Control, and the Maryland Department of Health. We are asking and encouraging all of you to limit your attendance at gatherings like community meetings, receptions etc. when you are back at home for the remainder of the legislative session out of an abundance of caution.

“While the General Assembly continues to conduct the business of the people, we will continue to monitor the situation and take every step to make certain that the State House Complex remains a safe environment, and that we are taking necessary steps for the public health. As things change and evolve, we will have further updates for all of you and the staff, and we encourage you to frequently wash your hands and, although counterintuitive to the nature of our business, practice social distancing.”

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