State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) protested the plexiglass shields that surround senators’ desks on the Senate floor.
“The first week we were here together, I shared with the body through Madam Clerk the data that shows that devices like these do not help mitigate the risk of COVID, and that they may indeed increase risk of COVID,” Dunnavant said in a floor speech. “There is no emergency order in place.”
Dunnavant is an OB/GYN. She added, “I believe that I am the best capable to discern my risk and mitigation of that risk.”
The shields have been in place since the Senate returned to the Capitol for a special session last summer. Previously during COVID-19, the Senate met in the Virginia Science Museum, where desks could be spaced out. While the Senate was there, only two plexiglass boxes were in place; one for State Senator Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who did not wear a mask for health reasons, and one for State Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax), who had a health concern, according to WUSA9.
During that time, the House of Delegates met virtually, but when the delegates returned in-person last summer, small plexiglass shields were placed on their desks. In the current session with Republicans in control of the House, those shields are gone, and generally, House Republicans haven’t been wearing masks, although House Democrats generally have. Legislators in both chambers have been allowed to participate virtually when isolating due to quarantine.
“We have our own observational study,” Dunnavant said. “I’ll share with you: At least 50 percent of the House has worn no masks. There are no dividers. Their percent positivity is identical to ours. We know that this has interfered with our ability to perform and interact here.”
The shields in the Senate make it difficult to see some legislators in person, and additionally make it difficult for viewers to see speakers in Senate video.
Dunnavant said, “It’s very hard to interact. It’s just one thing after another that raises the question, ‘Why are these here?'”
Dunnavant’s complaint comes amid a broader bipartisan sense of a “return to normal” in the Senate with separate individual decisions made around masking regardless of which party the senator belongs to. The General Assembly is in its final weeks of the 2022 regular session.
“I would like this box removed from my desk by Monday,” Dunnavant said. “I can remove it myself and I will do that if there’s not the manpower to do that.”
In response to Dunnavant, State Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said, “I would just like to take this moment to thank Madam Clerk and her staff for everything that they have done for the comfort, care, safety, and convenience of every member of this body and our staff. And while we may not all agree on the steps that have been taken, I hope we can agree that Madam Clerk and her staff bend over backwards, often with very little public thank you, or appreciation from members of this body and our staffs. And the past two years have been extraordinarily difficult on them.”
McClellan continued, “As things have changed rapidly, they tried to keep us safe with very little information and guidance coming out of Washington two years ago, with information coming out of Richmond changing rapidly, and I’m personally grateful. So whatever happens with these cages, I want Madam Clerk and her staff to know that this senator at a minimum, and hopefully all 40 of us, are very grateful for everything she does for us, our staffs, and our pages.”
Clerk of the Senate Susan Schaar declined to comment on the future of the shields.
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Siobhan Dunnavant” by Siobhan Dunnavant and photo “Virginia Senate in Session” by Waldo Jaquith CC BY-SA 2.0.