State House returns to mostly remote session amid COVID spike

Two lawmakers from each caucus and the presiding officer will be allowed on the House floor, and all must show proof of vaccination.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — In response to an increase of COVID-19 cases across the state, the Washington House is scaling back the number of people allowed in the chamber for the upcoming legislative session, with an updated plan requiring a majority of lawmakers to vote remotely, as they did last year.

While the plan will be reassessed every two weeks, when the 60-day session starts next Monday, two lawmakers from each caucus and the presiding officer will be allowed on the House floor, two more members than were allowed last year, but fewer than an original plan released in November anticipated. All must show proof of vaccination — and the new plan requires any lawmaker or staffer on the floor to also verify that they have received a booster.

All lawmakers and staff who work onsite will need to be tested three days a week, with the House covering the cost.

Bernard Dean, the chief clerk of the House, said Monday that the Executive Rules Committee approved the policy on Friday, with the four Democratic members — Speaker Laurie Jinkins and Reps. Pat Sullivan, Lillian Ortiz-Self and Monica Stonier — voting for it and the three Republican lawmakers — House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox and Reps. Joel Kretz and Paul Harris — opposed.

In an email, Dean said “the current dynamics of the pandemic and the prevalence of the omicron variant caused us to re-evaluate our session plan and take additional steps to protect the health of lawmakers, staff, and the public.”

Dean said that as of this week, 15 Republican lawmakers in the House had not provided proof of vaccination. There are 98 members in the House, and Democrats hold a 57-41 majority.

The public gallery overlooking the chamber will initially be closed to the public, and will be limited to credentialed press who have verified their vaccination status. As before, all committee hearings in both the House and Senate will be held remotely, with public participation.

The number of lawmakers on the floor may increase in the future, the updated plan notes, based on the status of the ongoing pandemic. As of Monday, the state had more than 882,000 confirmed or probable cases since the start of the pandemic and 9,853 deaths.

Last Thursday, the state Department of Health reported 6,888 new cases, the highest number of new coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic.

A spokesman for Senate Democrats said Monday that the Senate is also looking at revising its 2022 session plan — which had planned to allow all 49 senators on the floor, with a testing requirement — and instead return to the hybrid, mostly remote option that chamber used last year. Any change to the Senate plan would need to be finalized by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee.

The governor’s State of the State address — which is normally delivered before a joint session in the House but was delivered by video last year — will be held live Jan. 11 in the state reception room in the Capitol, and it will be streamed by TVW, the state’s government affairs channel.

No lawmakers or other elected officials will be in the room, and Gov. Jay Inslee will be joined by some staff and media. Spokeswoman Tara lee said that due to concerns about space limitations and the omicron variant, the regular program that includes the Color Guard and choir will not occur.

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