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Some assembly required: Georgia lawmakers meet amid COVID-19

Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta
Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta (Getty Images)

ATLANTA – It’s going to be another weird pandemic session of the Georgia General Assembly.

A House and Senate still struggling to operate amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak will see its members sworn in Monday to two-year terms. In one sign of the gravity of the times, guests will largely be banned from the chambers on a largely ceremonial day that often sees grandchildren wriggling on laps. And all 180 House members won’t be sworn in at once, but rather in four socially distanced waves.

Senators for the first time will be required to wear masks, said Sen. Butch Miller, of Gainesville, the GOP nominee for Senate president pro tem. Masks were optional in the 56-member Senate during the tail end of last year’s sessions and during committee hearings since, even though multiple senators were sickened with the respiratory illness. Masks were mandated in the House last year.

Both chambers are requiring members and staff to take twice-weekly saliva tests to try to slow the spread of the virus. And they’ve also banned legislative pages as well as the usual processions of beauty queens and 4-H members who are normally honored at the legislature.

Other business is supposed to proceed semi-normally, although House Speaker David Ralston said that could change if illness runs rampant. Lawmakers took a break from March until June last year when the coronavirus first began spreading in Georgia.

“I think it’s just going to be a decision that’s going to be made quickly,” Ralston told reporters Thursday. “We may have to make decisions kind of on the fly if the (infection) rate spikes here.”

House members will still be spread between the House floor, what’s normally the visitor’s gallery, and a committee room, although the House has bought an electronic voting system that’s supposed to avoid the oral roll calls that dragged House business to a crawl last June.

With the House and Senate awaiting committee assignments and some high-profile committees getting new chairs, the session could get off to an even slower start than most years. And many members were busy politicking during the state’s U.S. Senate runoffs and didn’t have time for the intensive preparation needed to pass legislation.

“There hasn’t really been enough time to have any policy discussions,” said state Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican. He spoke last Sunday as he stood and waited for Republican U.S. Sen Kelly Loeffler to give a campaign speech in the days before her defeat last week by Democrat Raphael Warnock.

Monday will see both chambers affirming leaders that the majority Republican caucuses agreed to in November. They also will attend to passing the rules, which could get some tweaks from usual protocol because of the virus.

The rope lines that are the scene of much arm-twisting remain curtained off, and some veteran lobbyists have said they plan to stay away as much as possible. Of course, that could change as the session rises to its midpoint crescendo — crossover day — when a bill must advance to the opposite chamber, and at the end, when leaders can rewrite bills on the fly, resurrecting proposals that had appeared dead.

Gov. Brian Kemp will give a socially distant State of the State address and release his budget on Thursday. The House and Senate plan joint budget hearings for the following week, when the full chambers are unlikely to meet.