Mississippi wise to close Capitol because of coronavirus

Published 4:57 pm Monday, March 23, 2020

The Mississippi Capitol is a germ and virus factory during any normal legislative session because of all the glad-handing, back-slapping and random hugging. It was clearly in line to become more perilous than usual during the coronavirus pandemic.

Legislators voted last week to suspend their session until at least April 1, acting on the recommendation of the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs.

“It’s been said that the full Legislature is a hub for this disease,” Senate President Pro Tempore Dean Kirby, a Republican from Pearl, told his colleagues. “Let’s try to keep this situation under control as much as we can … This is a tough situation we’re in right now. It’s a crisis and we all know it.”

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By leaving the Capitol, Kirby said, “I feel like we’ll help our constituents and we’ll be doing the right thing.”

Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people mingle in the Capitol on any given day when the House and Senate are in Jackson. In addition to the 174 legislators, the regulars in the building are legislative staffers, lobbyists, journalists and tour guides.

It’s a place where social distancing is difficult. Advocacy groups set up tables and give away food in the central gathering spot on the first floor. High school students by the hundreds pass through the building — 4-H kids in blue corduroy jackets, athletes in letter jackets, choirs wearing all-black outfits.

Not long before fear of the coronavirus started spreading in the United States, hundreds of parents and children wearing matching red T-shirts gathered inside the state Capitol and continued their yearslong — and, so far, unsuccessful — effort to get lawmakers to loosen Mississippi’s mandates for vaccinations that are needed before children can attend public or private schools. The state’s vaccination requirements for measles, chickenpox and other diseases are among the most stringent in the U.S.

Researchers are working to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health says that even if research goes well, a vaccine is at least 12 to 18 months from widespread availability.

April 1 is the earliest that lawmakers would return to the Capitol to resume their session. They could return later if that’s what Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn decide is the best thing for public health.

Before Dobbs took the top job at the Mississippi State Department of Health, he was the state epidemiologist. Gunn said he and Hosemann will seek advice from Dobbs about when it might be safe for legislators to return to work.

“We’ll pick up right where we left off,” Gunn said.

Mississippi legislators normally meet the first three months of each year. Because this is the beginning of a four-year term, they were supposed to have a four-month session this year, from early January until early May. The extra month allows time for organizational matters such as assigning members to House and Senate to committees. It also gives new legislators a chance to meet their colleagues and learn the legislative process.

Legislators are at roughly the halfway point of their work process this year. General bills have been considered in the chamber where they were filed — House bills in the House and Senate bills in the Senate. The two chambers are exchanging bills and will do more work on those after they return.

Legislators will also start the final decision-making process about money matters. State agencies submitted spending requests several months ago for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The coronavirus is expected to deliver an economic gut punch with the likelihood that tax collections will decrease at the same time that demand for state services increases.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.