House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said Thursday that the House will start meeting online as COVID-19 spreads at the Capitol, but he expressed no interest in recessing the legislative session as a safety precaution.
By Thursday afternoon, at least two senators and possibly more have contracted the coronavirus since lawmakers began the 2021 session on Jan. 5. One House member had tested positive.
Though legislative leaders adopted safety guidelines this session, many lawmakers at the Capitol have been regularly seen without masks, and others have held maskless meetings in small spaces. Visitors to the Capitol have also been seen wearing masks improperly or not at all.
Gunn said the one member in his chamber who tested positive had the coronavirus last week. He said based on that test, an unspecified number of House members were quarantined. That quarantine is slated to end Friday. Gunn said the House leadership was following the recommendations of State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs.
Senate leadership on Thursday announced that they, too, would allow senators to attend committee meetings online starting next Monday. Several senators are expected to receive quarantine orders after being exposed to at least two COVID-19 positive colleagues. A third senator on Thursday was displaying symptoms but had yet to test positive.
Gunn said House members can fully participate and vote online. Senate Rules Vice Chair Walter Michel, R-Ridgeland, said the Senate needs to have enough members attend committee meetings in person at the beginning to establish a quorum. The members can then leave the committee room and participate via Zoom.
In both chambers, the plan is to have a link on the legislative web page to allow the public to access the meetings via the internet.
Before the session began, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, proposed recessing the session until later this year. He cited fears that another outbreak would occur at the Capitol. In June 2020, a COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol infected at least 49 lawmakers, including Hosemann and Gunn, and was responsible for the death of at least one Mississippian.
Before the Senate adjourned for the weekend on Thursday, calls for the session to be recessed intensified amongst some members of the Senate.
Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, said he agreed with Hosemann that the “best course in light of what we are dealing with is to suspend the session… A lot of members have said it was not a matter of if we would have an outbreak, but a matter of when.”
The Senate is unable to recess for a long period of time without the consent of the House. At this point with no agreement from the House, the plan is for both chambers to conduct more business online.
“We have a plan to allow us to work and to work in a safe manner,” Gunn said Thursday. He said he “would like to see a vote” from senators to see if a two-thirds majority, which is required to recess the session, actually supports the idea of postponing.
The Legislature is at the point in the session where most of the work is done in committee meetings instead of in the chamber before the full membership. Gunn said in the coming days as the committee work continues, both the committee meetings and the full sessions, which will be brief each day, will be conducted online.