Maryland Senate president unveils operations plan for COVID-19

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Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) released rules and guidelines Friday for how his chamber will tackle the first full legislative session of the COVID-19 era.

It represents a dramatic departure from how the chamber normally conducts its business, though elements of the plan resemble the restrictions put in place in March, during the closing days of the 2020 session, as Maryland’s infection rate began to rise.

The 90-day General Assembly session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 13.

Under Ferguson’s plan for 2021:

  • Floor sessions will be limited to two hours, “with flexibility for debate.”
  • Members of the public who wish to testify on a bill in committee will do so via Zoom, and the number of witnesses will be capped — four in favor, two “favorable with amendments, and four opposed. (For more contentious issues, the numbers can be doubled.)
  • Access to the Senate office buildings will be restricted, depending on the level of virus outbreak among legislators and staff.
  • When the Senate meets for floor sessions, members will sit at desks that are have been retrofitted with tall Plexiglass panels on three sides.
  • Floor staff will be limited, the galleries will be closed to the public, and a restricted number of reporters will be allowed to cover the session from the gallery.
  • Every floor session and every committee hearing will be live streamed from start to finish, Ferguson’s office said. This will mark the first time the Senate has provided video coverage of floor sessions.
  • Everyone will be required to wear masks at all times, and everyone entering the State House complex will undergo a health screening every day they’re on site.
  • Members and “select staff” will undergo mandatory COVID-19 testing twice a week, with “other staff” tested on a weekly basis. Rapid tests will be available daily, on-demand, for anyone who wants one.
  • Engineers will boost air flow in the Senate chamber and in committee rooms.

The plan was put together in consultation with public health experts, lawmakers from both parties, representatives from local governments, citizens groups and the Annapolis lobbying corps, the Senate President’s office said in a statement.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce was also consulted, as were labor leaders, the region’s press association and others.

The plan applies to the Senate only. The House of Delegates has not released its plan yet and it could not immediately be learned Friday when House leaders will do so.

Three ‘stages’

The Senate will operate in one of three stages, depending on the extent of coronavirus infection among lawmakers, staff and others.

Stage 3 is the most “normal” of the three. The Senate will be in Stage 3 when there is little or no disease activity in the State House complex.

Stage 3 envisions two hours of debate and voting on the Senate floor per session, with members who wish to watch and vote from a committee room allowed to do so. (The Senate has several members who are over 70 years of age, putting them in a high-risk group.)

Committee hearings will be held virtually, with members in their offices. Voting will take place in-person in committee rooms.

Office meetings with constituents, lobbyists or others will be limited to two visitors at a time; guests must be escorted into and out of the two Senate office buildings.

The Senate will drop to Stage 2 when there is “low level disease activity with documented exposures requiring quarantine.”

In Stage 2, “floor” debate and voting will move to committee rooms and be held virtually. Bill hearings will be held remotely, with members in their offices. Campus access will be limited to legislators, staff and media. No visitors will be allowed.

The Senate will revert to Stage 1 if there is an “increase” in COVID-19 infection “or multiple instances of disease activity and potential transmutation; pandemic conditions.”

Under Stage 1, debate and voting will be paused. All hearings will be virtual, with select voting “as necessary.”

Lobbyists who were recently interviewed before Friday’s Senate announcement said they were already preparing for a departure from normal.

“It’s going to change the way we do business,” said Sushant Sidh, a partner at Capitol Strategies LLC. “I don’t think it’s going to be scary. It’s just going to be a matter of adjustment.”

Kristen Harbeson, political director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, lamented the lack of in-person access to legislators.

“These ‘I just need three seconds’ conversations with lawmakers in the hallways are the foundation of what we do,” she said.

But she also struck a hopeful note: “It could make it easier for community members to weigh in, because they won’t have to go to Annapolis and sign up to testify and wait for hours to testify for two minutes.”

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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