This story has been updated.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage the state, Wednesday marks the beginning of what could be dubbed the most unusual legislative session in the history of the Maryland General Assembly.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and their staffs have gone to great lengths to ensure that lawmakers can meet again in Annapolis as safely as possible.
The rules are vastly different this session, but how?
We at Maryland Matters did our research to answer your questions about changes for the 2021 session.
I’m a member of the public. Can I attend hearings and floor sessions?
Not in person.
Only lawmakers, approved staff members and members of the press with recognized credentials are allowed to access the legislative campus on a daily basis.
The State House is closed to the public. Members of the public will be able to access the legislative buildings on a very limited basis — but only if they have a pre-scheduled appointment with a specific lawmaker. They must be escorted at the entrance of the building to the lawmaker’s office.
House members were required to provide details on which staff members will be on campus on which days, and all staff with the ability to telework, including interns and pages, will work remotely.
What precautions will be taken to make sure that lawmakers and their staff are staying safe?
Every lawmaker is required to wear a facemask, and staff will be limited in both chambers.
Everyone who enters the State House complex will be required to complete a COVID-19 risk questionnaire through a cellphone app upon entry, and testing is available through the Department of General Services.
The General Assembly has its own contact tracing team and senators and certain staff members are to be tested for COVID-19 twice weekly. Other staffers will be tested once a week.
The House is encouraging lawmakers and their staff to get tested weekly.
General Assembly leaders have worked with the Department of General Services and committed to a plan to scour each building daily, routinely disinfect high-touch areas and clean the Senate and House floors and committee rooms as needed.
What if someone becomes infected or gets exposed?
If someone who comes into the State House or a legislative building in that complex returns a positive COVID-19 test, they must tell their supervisor immediately and go into isolation for a minimum of 10 days.
Should someone be in close-contact with, or exposed to, an infected individual, they must quarantine for seven to 10 days.
People exhibiting symptoms are required to stay home until they get negative COVID-19 test results and their symptoms subside.
Employees of the General Assembly and Department of Legislative Services are eligible to receive emergency paid sick leave if they become infected with or exposed to COVID-19.
How will floor sessions be conducted?
Floor sessions in both chambers will be limited to two hours at a time, with “flexibility for debate” in the Senate.
In a memo to lawmakers, Jones said that the House will take frequent breaks so that both the main chamber and annex can be cleaned and sanitized.
When conducting floor sessions, members of the House will meet in two separate locations. About 70 members have been assigned to an annex location in the House legislative building, where the floor session will be live-streamed. Members stationed in the annex will have the ability to vote, offer amendments and debate remotely.
Immuno-compromised members will be permitted to sit in one of the two galleries, and the Department of General Services has built a plexiglass well they can debate from near the Speaker’s office.
The press is permitted to observe from the galleries of both chambers and has limited space in the House chamber annex.
Desks in the chamber annex, but not in the main House chamber, will be encased by plexiglass shields, and lawmakers will be seated as far as possible from each other.
According to the Senate’s 2021 Operations Plan, it is “highly likely” that the Senate will not convene regularly for at least the first month of the legislative session, and it’s a similar story for the House.
Beyond the first day, Jones said that she doesn’t believe that the chamber will meet in-person for at least the first third of the session, and Monday night hearings likely will be on hold until March.
Floor sessions of both the House and Senate will be video-streamed live on the Maryland General Assembly website for public view.
What about committee hearings and voting sessions?
Senate hearings will be virtual.
When bills are heard, the bill sponsor may have four witnesses in favor of the legislation, two favorable with amendments and four unfavorable. The number of witnesses can be increased for complex legislation. Witnesses will have two and a half minutes to testify, but there is no set time limit on questions from the committee.
Senate committees will have the option of voting in their hearing rooms. If that occurs, senators will be seated at least four feet apart with plexiglass shields in between their desks. Desks and committee rooms will be sanitized between hearings.
House committees will meet virtually beginning Thursday. Lawmakers may participate from home or their offices but must be on camera while participating.
Committees are to give the public 48 hours notice regarding what bills are heard during which timeslot on the General Assembly website.
All voting sessions and committee and subcommittee meetings will be live-streamed.
Since I can’t be physically present, how can I play a part in the 2021 legislative session?
All committee hearings and voting sessions will be streamed virtually for public view, and outdoor rallies are still permitted at Lawyers’ Mall if demonstrators adhere to COVID-19 guidelines.
Anyone interested in participating as a witness for a bill can do so by setting up a “My MGA” account through the General Assembly website. My MGA will not allow witnesses to sign up as a panel.
Written testimony can be submitted through My MGA accounts, as well.
The public can submit written testimony and sign up to testify virtually through the Maryland General Assembly website. Those interested in testifying can sign up between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., 48 hours before the bill hearing.
In the Senate, 48-hours before a bill hearing, the bill sponsor will designate three favorable witnesses to testify virtually, one of whom will serve as the “lead proponent” with five minutes to testify.
The fourth witness testimony slot will be given to a member of the public, who will be selected “at random.”
If the bill sponsor doesn’t tell the committee who their favorable witnesses will be, all slots will be given to random members of the public.
The Senate committee chair will choose one witness who is favorable with amendments. The other slot will be chosen at random.
The chair will also choose two organizations that best represent opponents of the legislation, and the remainder of the slots will be randomly selected.
Selected witnesses for the Senate will be notified the evening before the bill hearing they signed up for, and will be provided a Zoom link.
For House committee hearings, the maximum number of testifying witnesses is 50 per bill, with a maximum of 30 for one side of an issue.