SACRAMENTO (AP) — Churches, bars and even Disneyland are closed in California to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But one thing is still open as scheduled: the state Legislature.
The Capitol was closed to the public over the weekend, and lawmakers have canceled all committee hearings, which is where they are most likely to interact with lobbyists and advocates in close quarters. But the legislative sessions themselves are set to continue on Monday, with no sign of stopping.
That’s despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s guidance on Sunday urging the state’s 5.3 million people 65 and older to stay at home. That guidance presumably includes the 25 lawmakers in the California Legislature who are 65 and older. At least one lawmaker, 71-year-old Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego, stayed home on Monday and is “adhering to the recommendation set forth form the Governor,” according to spokeswoman Tiffaney Boyd.
“I think the state Legislature is going to be sure that we continue to do the work we need to do to take care of the people of California,” said Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician who is also chairman of the Senate Health Committee. “We are also going to be sure we prioritize the health and safety of Californians, including modeling ourselves in our own actions what we expect other Californians to do at the same time getting our work done.”
A memo sent to all state Assembly offices on Sunday from Rules Committee chairman Ken Cooley asked all staff over 65 or with chronic disease to stay home. The memo said lawmakers will meet Monday to ” discuss ways and measures to address issues related to continued work during this crisis.”
The California Legislature has rarely closed during its 171-year history. In 1919, during a flu pandemic, at least five lawmakers had symptoms and had to be quarantined. Leaders discussed whether lawmakers should stop meeting, but eventually decided to “disinfect the Capitol daily and to keep meeting,” said Alex Vassar, an unofficial legislative historian at the California State Library.
The Legislature did not miss meetings during either of the World Wars or in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. In 2001, when a semi-truck crashed into the Senate side of the Capitol, the Senate convened right on schedule about 12 hours later in the Assembly chambers. And last year, when a woman threw her own blood onto the floor of the state Senate in an act of protest on the session’s final day, lawmakers reconvened hours later in a committee room to finish their work.
The only time lawmakers did unexpectedly suspend their meetings was in 1862, when a flood consumed most of Sacramento and, legend has it, forced newly elected Gov. Leland Stanford to use a boat to attend his inauguration.
“It is an extremely rare occurrence for the Legislature to stop meeting during the regular session,” Vassar said.