By Philip Van Slooten
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore on Friday released an operational plan for how the Senate will conduct the next session during the ongoing pandemic, including how health checks, voting procedures, and public testimony will be conducted.
Ferguson told reporters that he and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, D-Baltimore County, met with Gov. Larry Hogan, R, on Thursday and have been working closely with him, as well as with local officials, advocacy groups and other stakeholders, on the physical and operational changes needed to ensure the legislative business could safely continue.
“This has been a bigger task than I imagined,” Ferguson said, stating it seemed as though those involved were “rebuilding the legislative process from scratch.”
Ferguson unveiled to reporters the Senate’s 2021 Session Operations Plan, which explains COVID-19 precautions legislators will undertake as well as physical changes to the State House that are planned to be in place by Jan. 13.
Senate precautions include daily access to the State House being limited to Senators and two approved staffers per office and members of the press. Guests would only be permitted, under escort, if virus activity is low.
The plan also lays out three stages of operations depending on virus activity. Stage one conditions indicate a high potential for transmission and “pandemic conditions,” stage two indicates lower disease activity with those exposed being quarantined, and stage three indicates no activity or isolated incidents.
“In stage three in the Senate, members will be voting and debating from the Senate floor,” he explained, though the number of people on the floor will be restricted.
In stage two, members would be separated and participating virtually, while in stage one work would be paused until a determination is made when legislators could return.
When asked what the thresholds were to move from one stage to another, Ferguson responded that after consulting with health experts he wanted the plan to stay “dynamic.”
“It is about the level of spread,” he said, more so than the number of infected. “A small number (of infected) could still impact the ability to operate.”
Legislators in regular contact with others would require daily testing while those not in regular contact could have weekly testing. However, on-demand testing would be available in Annapolis at any time for those who felt symptomatic.
“The perception of safety is important as well,” he said, pointing out anxieties that were raised over allergies during the previous shortened session.
A daily health check app, a relaxed sick leave policy, social distancing and face-covering requirements are among the other measures mentioned in the plan for attempting to limit the spread of the disease during the next session.
Plexiglass dividers will also be installed at Senators’ desks in the chamber and tablets will be in their offices for votes as well.
Ferguson also responded to concerns about plans for limited public interaction during virtual committee meetings. He mentioned a process for submitting electronic testimony but stated he had to “balance values of reducing risk with the need for input and information.”
When asked if some of these changes could become permanent, Ferguson was doubtful, stating: “When we are doing the people’s business, we should be in Annapolis as the constitution says.”