DOVER — Lawmakers on Friday announced increased public access to Legislative Hall, starting with Tuesday’s return to session.
Pointing to dropping numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and positive test results, House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, and Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola, D-Newark, made the announcement.
Staff, lawmakers and visitors will no longer be required to wear masks or face coverings in the building, although it is strongly recommended in gatherings where people cannot maintain safe social distancing. Those who are unvaccinated are strongly encouraged to wear a mask at all times when interacting with other people, especially in public settings.
Legislators and staff also will no longer be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to be able to enter Legislative Hall. This follows the new policy for other state buildings, according to the announcement.
In a Joint Legislative Committee meeting on Thursday, lawmakers discussed the pending opening of Legislative Hall, collectively expressing a desire to open its doors to all.
“I’m really excited to be back in a legislative (environment where you can) feel the energy and the public present,” said Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat.
According to Sen. Sokola, “I am looking forward to it. I think it’s much more productive and easier to run that building when people are in versus a virtual session. So I am very happy to be announcing that we are going to be opening up and allowing the public back into the building.”
Rep. Larry Mitchell, an Elsmere Democrat, agreed.
“I think we have a responsibility to be open at this point because every indicator from (Gov. John Carney) is that we’re going back to as normal as possible and the numbers are down,” he said.
“(We should be) going forward unless there’s a change. I think we need to be back in that building and we need the public to be back in the building.”
Also, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Georgetown Republican, said “With everything else opening back up, schools opening, no masks, things like that, there’s no reason why the public can’t be in the building and participate in the process like they have done before.
“The numbers look down, everything is (moving) in a positive direction, so I’m all for opening back up.”
In the announcement, Rep. Schwartzkopf said, “Since the beginning of this pandemic and throughout the past two years, we have said that our building policy would be guided by health experts, CDC guidance, data and current trends in our state.
“In recent weeks, we have closely monitored the latest developments with COVID-19 and have been encouraged to see the improvements. We have modified our building policy several times, changing with the realities of the situation.
“This new policy reflects the ongoing improvements and our efforts to get legislators and staff fully vaccinated. I’m pleased to be returning to a more normal session atmosphere.”
While senators and representatives will meet in person to consider legislative agendas this month, House and Senate committees will continue to meet virtually via Zoom until further notice.
Members of the public will be able to attend all virtual committee meetings and deliver comments on pending legislation, the announcement said. Links to register for each meeting will be posted on the General Assembly’s website at legis.delaware.gov. If there are any changes to this system, they will be announced in advance.
Legislative sessions will continue to be broadcast online as well on the website.
On session days, a limited number of seats in the gallery of each chamber will be available to members of the public on a first-come, first-served basis. The foyers, cafeteria seating area and library will be open to the public but the cafeteria will be closed for food service.
Guests wishing to meet with their legislators should call ahead to schedule an appointment. Masking during an appointment is encouraged, but no longer required.
The House and Senate floors will be closed except to members, staff, special guests and witnesses.