By Natalie Wood
Before COVID-19, I thought of a hockey arena as a place teams took to the ice while thousands of fans cheered, screamed and celebrated for their favorite players.
But last week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives, a very different sort of team, met in the University of New Hampshire’s hockey rink, holding its first floor session since March.
The chamber’s 400 members had their temperatures checked, sat far apart enough to allow for social distancing and, in some cases, donned masks. The stands were still reserved for observers, the press was seated in the press box, and fans like me, who couldn’t be there in person, could watch the action thanks to a live stream. It was the first time the body met outside the Capitol since the Civil War.
New Hampshire’s historic meeting also is a sign of the times. In an age of social distancing, legislatures are getting creative about how to convene:
- Today, the New Hampshire Senate will meet in the House chamber.
- The Virginia House met in a reception event tent on the lawn of the Capitol while the Senate met within Richmond’s science museum.
- The Arkansas House convened in a basketball arena and the Illinois House met in a local concert and event venue.
- Plexiglass barriers between desks were erected in the Colorado House and in the Virginia Senate, staff devised an entire plexiglass box for a member with a high health risk. Enhanced sanitation procedures, temperature checks and masks, mandatory in some places and optional in others, are becoming commonplace in capitols.
In at least 20 states, two territories and the Council of the District of Columbia chambers have adopted new temporary rules to allow legislators to participate in session during an emergency even if they aren’t there in person. Vermont’s Senate and House are regularly meeting in formal sessions where all members join via Zoom while streamed on YouTube.
The 203 members of the Pennsylvania House are using another form of remote participation called proxy voting, whereby one member is authorized to vote on behalf of another, while the Pennsylvania Senate is using more virtual technology tools.
Committee work looks different these days too–and can depend on whether the Capitol is open to the public. In the last week alone, Iowa and Mississippi held in-person committee meetings, New Jersey legislators took public testimony over Zoom and Massachusetts accepted public comment in writing, using Google docs.
Colorado, which typically permits remote testimony, couldn’t do so during its reconvened session in May and June, as the colleges and universities that enabled remote connectivity in other parts of the state weren’t open. Instead, the General Assembly provided online guidance to the public about how to testify in writing or in person. Utah also offers guidance on testifying for its interim virtual hearings.
Many states are still meeting, and others are poised to go into special session or reconvene this summer. This fan will be watching and cheering them on.
Natalie Wood directs NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening. She’d love to hear about the innovative ways your legislature is conducting business during the COVID-19 emergency. If you have a story to share please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.