Lawmakers wear masks as coronavirus upends Virginia session

Virginia State Senator Thomas Norment, R-James City County, top center, gathers his caucus in a caucus tent as they prepare for the reconvene session at the Science Museum of Virginia Wednesday April 22, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The Senate is meeting in a remote location due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, Pool)
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic upended a Virginia legislative session, as mask-wearing lawmakers met Wednesday under a giant tent outside the Capitol and a href="https://www.whsv.com/content/news/Protesters-descend-on-Richmond-demanding-to-reopen-Virginias-economy-569856861.html" target="_blank">car horns blared nearby from protestors unhappy with mandated business closings.

House Delegates met under a canopy outside while the Senate met at a giant event space at the Science Museum of Virginia a couple of miles away. Lawmakers were seated far apart and wearing masks instead of germ-carrying ties to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Proceedings in the House quickly stalled for about 40 minutes when members encountered technical issues voting during an attendance roll call.

One state senator with health issues was surrounded by plexiglass for added protection.

Before the legislature convened, protesters on foot and in vehicles converged outside the Capitol. The drivers leaned on their horns and shouted in the direction of the Capitol and governor’s mansion. Many of the cars were flying American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, or President Donald Trump campaign flags and had signs affixed to their windows protesting Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive orders implementing business closures and social distancing measures. Some of the same vehicles circled repeatedly, and they mixed in with normal traffic like city buses.

Lawmakers were reconvening to take up Northam’s proposed changes to legislation passed earlier this year. Northam has proposed plans to delay some long-sought Democratic priorities until more is known about the pandemic’s effect on the economy, pushing back decisions on whether to give teachers and state workers raises, freeze in-state college tuition, and implement other new spending in the budget recently passed by lawmakers.

He's also proposed delaying the implementation of a number of labor bills, including one that increases the minimum wage and another that would allow limited public sector collective bargaining by local government workers if their locality opts in.

Both the House and Senate narrowly voted to uphold his proposed change on the minimum wage bill. Northam wants the first wage increase from $7.25 to $9.50 to kick in May 1, 2021, instead of in January 2021. Future minimum wage increases included in the bill — it would increase to $15 by 2026 — are not be affected.

Senate Republicans tried to reject the amendment so Northam could have another chance to consider vetoing the bill entirely.

“Instead of being sympathetic to these businesses at their worst time, we’re tightening the screws,” said Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph.

Democratic Sen. Janet Howell also voted to reject the proposed amendment, saying low-wage workers are the “the very people who are keeping us going” during the pandemic. She said those workers should not have to wait any longer than necessary for a raise.

The din of horns from the protest was audible in the House meeting spot and died down about three hours after the demonstration began.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor is eager to ease restrictions as soon as it is possible to do so safely.

“As is clear from our case counts and the President’s own guidelines, we are not there yet. The Governor is grateful to the millions of Virginians who are doing the right thing and protecting the health of themselves, their families, and their communities,” she said in a statement.

At the start of the House session, Democrats proposed a rules change that would have allowed members to participate remotely. Republicans objected, and the measure failed.

“While I am disappointed the minority party blocked the House from taking this public safety and health precaution, I am confident we will soon make this important change to allow for remote participation in the future,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said in a statement.