Pa. lawmakers plan to meet in the Capitol next week, despite coronavirus concerns

(Kalim A. Bhatti/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

(Kalim A. Bhatti/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

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Despite calls from lawmakers to close the state Capitol amidst coronavirus fears, the legislature’s session will go on as planned Monday.

Starting Friday, all public events in the Capitol are canceled until further notice, state officials said. That includes tours, school field trips, and rallies.

Yet lawmakers in the state House and Senate are still planning to meet next week — although legislative leaders signaled those plans are fluid.

“The coronavirus situation changes daily,” the top Republican and Democratic senators said in a joint statement Thursday, adding: “Evaluation of circumstances are ongoing and changes to Senate operations will be made if necessary.”

Still, some lawmakers were bristling at having to convene in Harrisburg, even as Gov. Tom Wolf encouraged suspending gatherings with more than 250 people.

There are more than 250 lawmakers in the Capitol, and the legislature employs hundreds of staffers on top of that.

“Reconvening the #PAHouse for legislative session next week is an aggressively bad idea,” state Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia) wrote in a tweet Thursday.

Some legislators have said privately they want to convene so they can pass bills related to the coronavirus’ rapid spread. Already, several lawmakers have circulated bills to address everything from ensuring the public can vote safely in elections to suspending testing in public schools in the midst of the public health crisis.

On the Senate side, lawmakers are heeding advice from the state health department and have measures in place should lawmakers need to work remotely.

“In the event of a closure or quarantine, we have taken measures to ensure that essential staff and senators will be able to work remotely and continue all core functions of the Senate,” said Brittany Crampsie, spokesperson for Democrats in the chamber.

Five senators instructed their staff to work remotely as of Thursday afternoon, she said, including lawmakers from Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties — all areas with at least one COVID-19 infection.

All state employees who work or live in Montgomery County have been told to work from home, Wolf said Thursday.

The state House is communicating with other state agencies to monitor the situation and “working to ensure every decision we make is in the best interest of public health,” said Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster).

“At this time, we have not made any changes to session schedule, or for policies regarding our members and district staff,” Straub said.

House members cannot vote remotely, but they can place themselves on leave if they think it is necessary, Straub added. The chamber has “passed temporary rules in the past to allow ill members to vote from home,” he said, and “those kinds of rule changes are being discussed at this time.”

Such a change would require a vote on the House floor.

Senators can still cast votes on bills even when they aren’t in the Capitol — they have to take what is called “legislative leave,” meaning they are working in their districts or are traveling between Harrisburg and their district.

Bill Patton, a spokesperson for House Democrats, said he looks forward to Monday’s session, when Philadelphia special election winner Roni Green will be sworn in as a representative.

“House leaders are monitoring developments and asking legislators, staff, and Capitol visitors to follow the Department of Health’s guidance, notably on washing hands,” he said.

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