A week ago I sat in a series of emergency meetings of the Legislature's Joint Rules Committee. This committee is made up of the leadership teams in the Vermont House and Senate; we are the group that decides if and when the legislature will go into recess. Regardless of party or the chamber in which we serve, we each felt the weight of our decisions. The feeling in the Statehouse grew more and more tense by the hour, and we felt the pressure to make a decision. Unfortunately, as is often the case in an emergency, there was not clear agreement within the building as to what should be done.
Some legislators felt it was irresponsible and dangerous to keep the building open, as hundreds and hundreds of people visit each week. These visitors come from all over the state, nation, and world, and we do not screen them upon entrance — no metal detectors, let alone thermometers. Each day we stayed open put the public, and all our staff, at risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19. It also concerned the Joint Rules Committee that, if the virus spread undetected at the Statehouse, we — as representatives of every town and county — could unwittingly deliver the disease to every corner of Vermont. I didn't want to be the next Typhoid Mary.
Each day I walked into the Statehouse, I thought about the public and all the workers who keep the building up and running. I thought about the thousands of surfaces we all touch and how the CDC had reported that the virus could stay on these sites for days. We have journalists, lawyers, committee clerks, lobbyists, advocates, custodial staff, security personnel — all working within a giant Petri dish. As is true with so many Vermonters, a large swath of those who work in the building are in a high risk category for succumbing to COVID-19: those over 65.
As the Joint Rules Committee considered these factors, some of our colleagues felt that it would be irresponsible to take a recess. Several were vocal about their frustration that we were even considering taking a brief recess to do a deep clean of the building and to sort out remote work options.
What a difference a week makes. Governors across the country have ordered schools and childcare centers closed. Same for restaurants and bars. All large gatherings are discouraged or banned. "Social distancing" is the mantra as organizations and businesses scramble to operationalize remote work systems. Globally, as of this morning, over 200,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19; over 8,000 have died. These are rough estimates; we know thousands and thousands are carrying the disease without knowing it, and many have died without being officially tested.
I am more certain every day that temporarily closing the Statehouse was the correct decision to slow the spread of the virus and to prevent deaths, as our healthcare facilities slowly reach capacity. But be assured that we in the legislature have continued our work remotely, and have made sure that the press and the public can listen in to all our committee "meetings" (conference calls) and our Joint Rules "Zoom" discussions. We'll be passing a Vermont COVID-19 response package soon to complement what the feds are doing.
What I'm feeling acutely this morning is gratitude to my colleagues who sit on the Joint Rules Committee with me. We rose above political parties, and came together between chambers, to make a unanimous decision for the safety and well-being of Vermonters.
Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature, representing the Windham District. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.