General Assembly will see limited in-person gatherings, higher security for 2021 Lobby Day
Federal judge declares dispute over Pocahontas Building settled
A federal judge said Friday that a dispute over the scheduled closing of the Pocahontas Building, the temporary offices for delegates and state senators during the General Assembly session, has been settled.
In December, Virginia state Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, sued Senate Rules Committee Chair Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton, who announced that the building, which has been in use during extensive renovations of the General Assembly office building in Richmond, would be closed for the duration of the session starting Jan. 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and the two bodies’ legislative clerks were also included in the suit, as well as the Virginia Division of Capitol Police.
After moving the suit from the Richmond Circuit Court to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, the parties went into mediation and reached a resolution, according to U.S. District Judge David J. Novak’s order.
The agreement includes the following provisions: There will be four conference rooms secured at the Bon Secours facility near the Science Museum of Virginia, where the state Senate will meet during the session. Legislators can make appointments to meet with constituents in person during the 30-day session on weekdays, although more than 10 people will not be allowed in the room simultaneously and everyone must wear masks and stay at least six feet away from others.
Novak said the court finds the agreement to be “an adequate and reasonable alternative under the First Amendment to the blanket ban initially imposed by defendants on public access to the Pocahontas Building during the 2021 General Assembly session.”
State Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon, died from complications from COVID-19 on Jan. 1, the first Virginia state legislator to succumb to the coronavirus. Novak notes in his order that DeSteph “testified to the ‘stable’ condition of his colleague, Sen. Ben Chafin, who had recently contracted COVID-19 and was being treated at VCU Medical Center in Richmond. Yet, tragically, the very next day after this testimony, Sen. Chafin died due to complications caused by COVID-19. This is but one example of the unpredictable and devastating nature of this virus.”
The order concludes that “the parties and their colleagues in both the Senate and the House of Delegates must abide by the health and safety measures specified in the agreement, including the diligent use of masks and careful social distancing. … If [DeSteph] or his colleagues fail to comply with these provisions, defendants may return to this court and argue that the agreed-upon alternative is no longer feasible given a demonstrated disregard for the health of those attempting to safely complete the 2021 General Assembly session.”
Novak scheduled a status hearing for March 2, but that may be canceled if both parties consider the matter resolved.
The court order comes as concerns over security reached a fever pitch following the breach of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters on Wednesday, accompanied by ongoing concerns about the coronavirus. Although the state Senate will meet in person at the museum due to the pandemic, as it did during last year’s special sessions, the House of Delegates is meeting virtually for the 2021 regular session.
According to state Capitol police, there will be significant security in place at the Science Museum of Virginia, with Virginia State Police and the Richmond Police Department cooperating with Capitol officers, particularly on Lobby Day, which is scheduled Jan. 18. Public Information Officer Joe Macenka said Friday that last year, an estimated 22,000 people came to Capitol Square on Lobby Day, a time when constituents traditionally bring their concerns to their legislators.
The 2020 Lobby Day was overtaken by a gun-rights rally in the streets surrounding the Capitol, in part because guns were banned from the property itself by the Democratic-led General Assembly. Only one arrest — of a woman wearing a mask — took place during the Jan. 20, 2020, rally, which saw about 20,000 gun-rights supporters gather in the streets outside the Virginia State Capitol.
The General Assembly has not met in its traditional chambers since last March, out of concern for potential spread of the coronavirus. On top of COVID-19, which is spiking in the commonwealth and has claimed 5,312 lives statewide since the pandemic began, there is additional worry for the security of statehouses following the breach at the U.S. Capitol this week, when pro-Trump demonstrators occupied the offices and chambers of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Five people died this week due to incidents related to the breach, including a woman shot by a U.S. Capitol police officer, and a Capitol police officer who died Friday after sustaining critical injuries when someone hit him on the head with a fire extinguisher, according to reports from the U.S. Capitol police.
Recent events in Washington, D.C., are on the minds of Virginia’s Capitol Police, Macenka said. “We’re having literally daily planning meetings” about Lobby Day, and he expects there will be a perimeter set up at the Science Museum and that public access will be limited. “It’s typical of what we do at Capitol Square.”
Macenka and spokespeople for the Richmond police and the Virginia State Police declined to give logistical details for security reasons, but the Richmond Police Department said it would provide more information regarding road closures and preparations “as we get closer to Lobby Day. RPD is dedicated to ensuring public safety.”