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Coronavirus Forces Legislators to Keep Their Distance

Nearly half the nation's legislatures have adjourned or canceled sessions. Where they're still meeting, lawmakers are improvising to keep a safe distance from one another.

The chambers at Seattle City Hall sit nearly empty as the City Council meets remotely. (Alex Brown/The Pew Charitable Trusts/TNS)
State legislators are doing their best to practice social distancing. 

Legislatures in 23 states have adjourned or suspended sessions due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). That number includes Georgia, where all the members of the General Assembly were asked to self-quarantine after Sen. Brandon Beach, who later tested positive, attended a session on March 16. Since then, four other Georgia state senators have also tested positive.

Legislators elsewhere are attempting to keep a safe distance. This week, lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania participated in their states’ first-ever remote sessions. In states such as Colorado, Idaho and Washington, legislative committees have solicited remote testimony from the public. Around the country, capitols are closed to everyone except legislators, staff and reporters.

City councils from California to Maine have also canceled hearings or are holding them remotely. In Seattle, the nation’s initial coronavirus hot spot, the city council has been holding remote meetings since March 9. “There is no piece of legislation worth risking your life or your staff's life when there are plenty of ways to participate remotely,” said Teresa Mosqueda, a member of the council.

To make sure they’d have adequate room to keep apart, the Arkansas Legislature moved its session Thursday to a basketball arena.

Gov Hutchinson addressing the House — Jay Bir ���� (@TheJayBir) March 26, 2020
Some legislators have taken to sitting out in hallways or in otherwise empty visitor galleries.

Democratic Reps Attica Scott, of Louisville, and Chris Harris, of Forest Hills, are sitting in the near-empty gallery to avoid close contact with other lawmakers. Scott says she will text her seatmate to indicate votes. Will go down to the floor if she needs to speak. — Ryland Barton (@RylandKY) March 17, 2020
Those who remain on the floor have spread themselves out. Votes are taking longer as multiple legislators have to return to the chamber.

Social distancing on the MN House floor. — Peter Callaghan (@CallaghanPeter) March 26, 2020
Some are wearing masks and other protective gear.

State Rep. Attica Scott, in gloves and mask (briefly lowered to speak), tells House Education Committee the Leg should not even be in session anymore given pandemic. ^JC — Bluegrass Politics (@BGPolitics) March 26, 2020
Since protesters can’t come into the capitol or safely gather for rallies outside, groups have been staging drive-by protests in Kentucky.

As the General Assembly resumes seesion protesters are driving and honking with signs saying “go home” #kyga20 — Michon Lindstrom (@MichonLindstrom) March 26, 2020
Social distancing, it turns out, is just one more way in which state legislatures follow better practices than Congress.

This is not good social distancing, Senate. — Michael McAuliff (@mmcauliff) March 26, 2020
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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