CHARLESTON — When the 85th Legislature convenes Wednesday for the 60-day regular session, it will look much different than a normal legislative session, beginning with Gov. Jim Justice’s State of the State address.
Traditionally for State of the State addresses, the governor addresses a joint session of the House and Senate in House chambers, with the House floor packed with seating for senators, state Supreme Court justices and the other statewide constitutional officers.
On Wednesday, the House of Delegates has announced, only Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, will join delegates on the House floor.
In order to achieve social distancing as the COVID-19 pandemic goes into its 11th month, justices and constitutional officers will be looking down from House galleries.
Also in the galleries will be six members of the media, who will be seated on a first-come, first-served basis after being directed to vacate press row, located in front of the speaker’s podium, for the session.
Galleries, located above three sides of House chambers, normally are filled with family members and guests of legislators and state officials, as well as family members, staff and notables invited by the governor — the latter of whom are commonly introduced by the governor in the course of the address.
This year, with senators, justices, constitutional officers and media moved to spaced-out seating in the galleries, only the governor will be able to invite guests, who will be in the rear gallery, according to House spokeswoman Ann Ali.
Justice, at his Friday COVID-19 briefing, concurred with pandemic restrictions for his address.
“They’re taking every precaution, I think, with the number of visitors. They’re very, very limited,” he said of House policies for the State of the State.
“I promise you it will be right, and we’ll be spread out,” Justice added. “We’ve got to go on with our lives, but at the same time, we don’t want to go on compounding a terrible issue.”
After Wednesday, the restrictions will continue, according to notices from the House and Senate.
In the Senate, seating in each of the three Senate chamber galleries will be limited to 18 people, with the rear gallery restricted to media and invited Senate guests.
No more than 10 members of the media and the public will be admitted to committee meetings in the Senate Finance Committee room, with no more than 12 in the Judiciary Committee room.
For House floor sessions, in order to maintain social distancing, delegates will be located in the north and south galleries, while no more than 18 media will be admitted to the rear gallery.
All House committees will meet in either House chambers, with 18 seats in the rear chamber reserved for media, or in the House Government Organization Committee room, with reserved seating for six media members.
All floor sessions and committee meetings are live-streamed on the Legislature’s website, although meetings from the House Government Organization Committee room are audio only.
As House leadership noted Monday, Justice’s March 2020 executive order closing the Capitol to the public remains in effect, with public access limited to those with appointments with legislators or state officials, or to conduct official state business.
Recently, a coalition of 40 state organizations sent a letter to legislative leaders calling for a more open and transparent legislative process, with attendance open to the public.
“They’ve got the votes to run just about anything up there, while keeping the public out,” Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group, said at the time.
Republicans have supermajorities in both houses for this Legislature.