Washington Legislature goes virtual for second year amid omicron spike

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OLYMPIA — For the second year in a row, the Washington Legislature will be mostly virtual.

As the number of COVID-19 cases spikes across the state, the state House and Senate have both modified their plans for the 60-day session set to start Monday, Jan. 10.

A Senate committee voted Tuesday to modify their session plan, suspending all in-person meetings and only allowing 15 members on the floor at once. It's a change from the plan agreed upon in November that allowed all members on the floor, assuming they tested negative for COVID-19.

The maximum number of Senate members on the floor at once, not including the presiding officer at staff, is 15 — eight Democrats and seven Republicans.

The Senate plan still requires members and staff working on campus to receive a negative COVID-19 test before entering Senate facilities. Tests are offered by the Senate three days a week.

Public access to the galleries is still under review, according to the new guidance.

Committee hearings will remain mostly virtual, and in-person caucus and staff meetings are not permitted.

The Senate plan comes from Department of Health recommendations that focus on using a multilevel approach, including testing, vaccines, masking and social distancing.

Cases across Washington have continued to climb in the past week. Spokane County almost hit a  daily record Tuesday with 718 new COVID-19 cases reported.

The Senate's decision follows a similar move from the House last week. The House Executive Rules committee voted 4-3 to move most of their operations online. Democrats on the committee approved, while Republicans voted against it.

The new House plan allows for two members from each caucus and a presiding officer on the floor at once, fewer than what the House expected when it passed its plan in November. All members and staff on the floor must show proof of vaccination, including a booster.

All members and staff on campus must be tested three times a week. The House will administer the testing.

The number of people allowed to attend caucus meetings in person is limited, and committee meetings will remain virtual. The public can testify virtually, similar to last year.

Under the new plan, the public will not be allowed in the House galleries.

"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," Bernard Dean, chief clerk for the House, wrote in an email.

Both the House and the Senate will reassess floor operations at least every two weeks.

The Legislature will reconvene for its 60-day session Monday, Jan. 10. Committee hearings and floor action can be watched on TVW.

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