Delaware House to hold ‘hybrid’ session late this month

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Citing vaccinations as the main reason, the Delaware House of Representatives’ leader will convene its session in Legislative Hall this month for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said outside pressures that include criticism from GOP legislators were not a factor in decisions, with members informed that reopening plans were in the works.

Legislative Hall has been closed to the public since the global pandemic hit Delaware in March of last year. House and Senate have conducted sessions virtually using Zoom since May 2020.

This month’s return to Legislative Hall is the first phase in an ongoing effort to resume the in-person legislative session.

“As I have stated numerous times, the health and safety of fellow legislators, our staff, and the public are my primary responsibilities. Remaining in virtual session has been critical to that goal,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf. “However, we are thankfully in a position where lawmakers and staff have been able to get vaccinated, which greatly reduces the risk to them and their families, and we can begin the process of resuming the in-person session.

“Returning to session in person will give us the opportunity to discuss issues and interact with each other in a way that is both familiar and more productive for many members. However, it will require us first to ensure the safety of all those who would be present, and to plan for contingencies. The health and safety of all those involved is our top priority. This is a deliberate process that is being guided by the science and recommendations from experts,” the House speaker stated.

On April 29, the House will convene an in-person hybrid session day for floor votes and party caucuses. This is made possible because the vast majority of the Representatives and essential staff will have been fully vaccinated by that date.

The session day will consist of Representatives participating via Zoom from their respective Legislative Hall offices. The building will remain closed to the public, except for elected officials and essential staff. Social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines will be followed.

The upcoming two-week segment of the legislative session will begin April 20, with virtual committee meetings scheduled for April 20-21 and April 27-28. A virtual floor session will be held on April 22 for House votes on legislation.

Schwartzkopf noted that these plans had been in House staff and leadership works for months, with House members notified more than a month ago that plans were being discussed for a return to the in-person session. Details of this plan for an in-person hybrid session on April 29 was discussed with House Republican leadership on March 29.

“I want to be clear that this return to an in-person session has been discussed for months among staff and legislators and was not prompted by some outside pressure,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said. “In fact, this plan was vetted by the leaders of both caucuses last month, as will our ongoing efforts to conduct legislative business on the House floor.”

An unsuccessful GOP candidate for governor earlier filed a lawsuit in federal court in an effort to halt virtual sessions, and Republicans have continued to criticize the use of the sessions, especially in the Senate.

Future decisions about continuing or advancing in-person legislative session for the remainder of the year will be announced at a later date, a release from House leadership stated.

State House Minority Leader Danny Short (R-Seaford) agreed that legislative leaders have discussed coming back into session in-person for several weeks, but continued to criticize the way recent Senate hearings were handled.
“Last week, we issued a statement urging the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tem to set a hard date for resuming full, in-person sessions and committee meetings,” according to a statement from Short. “There are many venues in the Dover area that could accommodate such gatherings, while giving us sufficient space to observe CDC guidelines for social distancing, mask-wearing, and other science-based protocols proven effective at preventing the spread of the virus. If hundreds of people can safely patronize the unstructured environment of a big box store, and hundreds-of-thousands of Delawareans can attend school and go to work daily, we should be able to safely conduct public floor debates and committee meetings in a controlled, secured, and monitored setting.”
House Democrats responded by noting that Zoom hearings have far more participation from the public than in-person testimony.
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