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Pandemic Looms Over Virginia General Assembly’s 2021 Session

Lawmakers gather around a desk wearing masks
Democratic Senate Caucus chair Mamie Locke, left, consults with Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Northern Chesapeake) and Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth). (Photo: Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

It was over quickly. Two pricks to her arm, spaced weeks apart, and state Sen. Shiobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) is on track to become the first member of the General Assembly inoculated against COVID-19.

The obstetrician-gynecologist said she was “just thrilled” that the vaccine had come through so quickly.

“I just want everybody to be able to get it,” Dunnavant said on Tuesday.

Soon other Virginia lawmakers will follow Dunnavant’s path. But their 2021 session, which begins on Wednesday, comes with ominous trends.

More than 1,600 people in Virginia have died from COVID-19 since the General Assembly wrapped up its special session on Nov. 9. The state’s average caseload has more than tripled in that time. And so lawmakers begin the session even deeper in a pandemic that will likely dominate the session.

The vaccines offer a shred of hope. Over 180,000 Virginians have now gotten at least one vaccine dose. But only around a quarter of the nearly 775,000 vaccines have been administered, according to the state’s lagging data metrics, and an early concern for lawmakers from both parties will be speeding up the process.

Dunnavant is consulting with state and local health experts as she drafts legislation on how to do that, including allowing more medical professionals to give the vaccine. 

Rally on front steps of Capitol
Democrats rallied on the steps of Virginia's Capitol as the Virginia's 2020 session drew to a close in March. (Photo: Sara McCloskey/VPM News)

“There's just no system by which they can plug in and start putting vaccines in people's arms,” Dunnavant said.

It will take money to store vaccines and set up vaccination sites. Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said approving nearly $90 million toward vaccine rollout will help.

“We are in an urgent situation, and it's going to require us as Democrats and Republicans to put aside our partisanship,” Deeds said.

That may be a tall order in a year that began with an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Two Virginia lawmakers, Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian) and Del. Dave LaRock (R-Loundon), attended the rally in the runup to the attack and have continued to put out misinformation about the insurrection. Both have faced calls to resign; Chase, who is also running for the Republican nomination for governor, lauded the insurrectionists as “patriots” in a recent fundraising email

Republican lawmakers already vowed to shorten Virginia’s session to just 30 days. If they follow through, Deeds said Democrats will find a way to extend it to the traditional 46-day off-year schedule, likely through a special session. He wants to use that time to focus on people who’ve lost their job during the pandemic, adding more funding for long-term unemployment relief and job training.

“We've got to find a way to keep those people going until the economy recovers,” Deeds said.

People who’ve lost their jobs are in increasing danger of losing their homes.

“Even those that have worked now are behind,” said Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News).

Price is sponsoring legislation that would make it easier for them to use payment plans to catch up. And with a federal eviction moratorium expiring in January, Price says the state may need more protections.

“We're not even at a space where we can say, ‘Okay, now we're looking completely forward,’” Price said.

For Price, the debates about housing policy don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re also about race, poverty and criminal justice. It’s a lens she and some other lawmakers also want to bring to a push to legalize marijauana this year.

House of Delegates beneath tent
Members of Virginia's House of Delegates gathered beneath a giant tent at a veto session in April, 2020. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

“If Person A is about to be able to make millions of dollars on an endeavor, and Person B is still in jail for that same endeavor, that is not justice, and that is not fair,” Price said.

Advocates are already gearing up for a fight over what kind of stake small, minority-owned businesses will play in a legal market. Larger cannabis companies already have a presence in the state as dispensaries. The fight could be delicate for Gov. Ralph Northam in his final year in office. The governor has promoted racial equity as a key theme for his tenure after reporters found a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

Some Democrats, like Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), have different priorities. 

“Reopening schools is absolutely critical,” Petersen said. “And frankly, everything else pales in comparison.”

Petersen and two other senators -- Dunnavant and Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond City) -- say they won’t sign a budget until that happens. They argue the costs of virtual learning when it comes to students’ mental health and learning development outweigh the pandemic risks of in-person learning.

“We should reward school systems that have actually opened, not school systems that have remained virtual,” Petersen said.

So far the idea has gotten more traction with Republicans than Democrats. On Tuesday, Henrico County became the latest school district to delay opening up to in-person instruction, citing a shortage of school nurses.

Petersen,who owns a law practice, has also sided with the GOP on issues like paid sick leave, which failed twice last year in the Senate. While advocates say the policy is urgently needed during the pandemic, Petersen said it hurts small businesses struggling to stay afloat.

Northam at desk with pen surrounded by activists
Gov. Ralph Northam signs gun legislation at a ceremonial bill signing in July, 2020. This will be Northam's final year in office, but several current and former lawmakers are angling to take his job. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

“It's very easy to pass a bill like this and talk about how important it is if you've never actually made a payroll and don’t understand the consequences of adding benefits on benefits,” Petersen said.

Still, Petersen said there may be a compromise when Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax gavels in the Senate at a pavilion attached to the Science Museum of Virginia. Fairfax is one of a slew of lawmakers seeking higher office this year -- in his case, the Executive Mansion -- while also legislating. The entire House of Delegates is also up for election in November, though it will be months before they know what their district will look like.

The Senate proceedings will begin just weeks after COVID-19 claimed the life of Sen. Ben Chafin (R-Russell). Northam announced on Tuesday that elections for Chafin’s replacement won’t happen until March 23, effectively leaving a safe Republican seat unfilled during the session in a chamber Democrats previously controlled by a 21-19 margin. Republican Party of Virginia chair Rich Anderson called the move “as shameful as it is shady.”

Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) knew Chafin as a friend and, during the session, workout buddy, whom he visited in Southwest Virginia -- “a very kind, gentle man,” DeSteph said.

But despite his friend’s death at age 60 -- to a disease that has infected millions across all ages -- the 56 year-old DeSteph said he’s not worried about his own risk as the Senate meets in person.

“I'm going to be one of the last people I believe to get COVID,” DeSteph said, citing his age, health and regular workouts. “I’m one of the ones on the bottom of the vulnerability. ”

DeSteph sued to allow lawmakers to meet in-person with constituents. In a settlement, the state agreed to create space for in-person meetings at nearby conference rooms.

Democratic Speaker of the House Eileen Filler Corn has argued against any kind of in-person assembly. Delegates in her chamber will meet virtually -- trying to avoid a virus that has crept into every corner of our lives.