Legislature announces January start will be virtual

DOVER — The General Assembly will conduct at least its first month virtually, lawmakers officially announced Thursday.

Because of the pandemic, the legislature has not met in-person since January of this year, finishing its business in May and June over Zoom after taking a monthslong break.

The 151st General Assembly will begin Jan. 12, with representatives and senators being sworn in from their homes or offices. The ceremonies will be live-streamed on the General Assembly’s YouTube channels (bit.ly/37tLD0T for the House and bit.ly/2WmNCOl for the Senate).

Committee meetings and sessions of the full House and Senate throughout January will also be conducted virtually and live-streamed, with the public allowed to comment during committee hearings. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a brutal toll on families across Delaware, and after much discussion and deliberation, we determined that there was simply no way for the General Assembly to safely convene our new legislative session in person,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said in a statement.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf

“Nevertheless, the people of Delaware elected us to do a job, and when Jan. 12 gets here, we intend to get to work considering bills, holding committee hearings, voting on legislation and doing all the things that the General Assembly is expected to do, just in a different format. One silver lining to all of this is that the public will have more access than ever before to the business of the legislature.

“Throughout the entire history of the Delaware General Assembly, if you wanted to deliver a public comment during a committee meeting, you had to be in that room in Legislative Hall. If you wanted to watch a roll-call vote, you had to be in the House or Senate chamber. But now, every committee meeting we hold, every floor debate we have, and every vote we take will be streamed live online.”

Whether lawmakers will return to Legislative Hall after January will be determined by the same bipartisan group of legislators and staff that opted for a virtual start. That decision will be based off the course of the pandemic, with public health as the top priority.

When the legislature convenes next month, the chamber rules, which are adopted at the outset of every session, will contain new provisions to ensure virtual sessions and committee meetings are conducted in an orderly and transparent manner. The procedures will also include a method to verify the identity of each legislator and allow public participation.

Further details, such as meeting dates and times, will be announced in the coming weeks. Gatherings of the Joint Finance Committee, which traditionally take place in February and March, will be announced at a future date.

“Starting the 151st General Assembly in a virtual format will not stop us from aggressively tackling the economic, public health and racial justice issues the people of this state are facing on a daily basis,” Senate President Pro Tempore-elect Dave Sokola, D-Newark, said in a statement. “This pandemic has laid bare long-standing fractures in our society and we will not let the fact that we’re unable to meet in person prevent us from making progress for Delawareans who can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Some Republicans objected to the continued use of a virtual session earlier this year, stating the legislature could safely meet in person, and had expressed hope the 151st General Assembly would gather in the capitol from the first day.

Legislative Hall has been closed to the public since March.