ATLANTA — Georgia’s general assembly gaveled in Monday for what’s typically a forty-day session. But there were calls on the first day to shorten it – or at least, interrupt it as quickly as possible to let COVID numbers drop.
With 236 elected members and countless staff, the Georgia legislature embodies the large gatherings that have otherwise mostly disappeared during the pandemic. And it’s not sitting well with some lawmakers.
"How much further do we have to go before we say let’s shut this down?," asked state Rep. James Beverly (D-Macon), the new House Democratic leader.
Beverly had barely arrived at the capitol before he got mandatory twice-weekly covid-19 testing – with lines of lawmakers and staff joining him.
"It’s a different world. And we’re trying to be careful," said Zulma Lopez, a newly-elected DeKalb County state rep, who was among them.
To some lawmakers, the setting seemed counterintuitive to COVID guidelines that still seek social distance some ten months into the pandemic.
"I really think we should be doing session virtually. I think we do not need to be down here at the capitol. With the rate of COVID, the numbers are continuing to rise," said state Rep. Sandra Scott (D-Rex).
Legislators are constitutionally required to pass a budget and to meet for a maximum of forty days. Beverly is among those who see that as an early way out for lawmakers.
"Maybe work twenty days, twenty-five days. Let’s get that stuff done, let’s get out of here and get back home. And take care of ourselves, our families, and our communities," Beverly said.
Yet other lawmakers think the required testing, the presence of masks, and social distancing are encouraging signs for a reasonably safe legislative session.
"With the testing right now, I would hope that would hold up and the social distancing the wearing of these masks will make the difference down here so we can continue to do our work," said state Rep. Chris Erwin (R-Homer).
But Beverly thinks the legislature can pass the required budgets this winter – and reconvene after the pandemic abates.
"Let’s get everyone safe and then deal with that in August, September, October -- whenever that’s going to be
House speaker Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said last week he would not be heartbroken if he had to shorten the legislative session. Attitudes could shift sharply if an outbreak were to occur here at the capitol.