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D.C. Council Begins Discussion of Plans for Reopening

Fritz Mulhauser | December 1, 2021 | Last modified: December 2, 2021

In a Zoom session neither broadcast nor recorded and with the agenda obscurely listed only as “Return to JAWB,” the Council Tuesday (30) discussed the details of reopening the legislative branch of D.C. government that works in the John A. Wilson Building but has been closed to the public since March 2020. 

The Council chairman, Phil Mendelson, said he will offer concrete plans next week, but the early discussion at the two-hour session showed initial thoughts of the 13 Council members looking ahead to reopening in mid-January or early February 2022.

That will be the start of an election year and no doubt Council members will be thinking how to maximize public contact and a sense of normality, while also staying safe – and with the new Omicron virus strain as possible disrupter of all plans. 

The discussion, first reported Tuesday afternoon by Martin Austermuhle in DCist, showed general interest in reopening legislative sessions (the Tuesday meetings every two weeks to debate bills and cast votes) and some hearings.

Public interest will be highest early in the year, the time when committees review executive branch performance and evaluate the mayor’s new budget requests.

Practice may vary if each committee chair is allowed to decide, as the discussion showed safety concerns varied. “I’m going to keep my meetings virtual until the numbers and the variants calm down,” said Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the transportation and environment committee, according to DCist.

To allow continued widened access as well as resumed in-person gatherings that legislators spoke warmly about as well, some hearings may be “hybrid,” where citizens can testify either in person or virtually (that is, remotely by online link).

At the start of the pandemic, the Council closed its building and moved all hearings and legislative sessions to virtual platforms. In 2020, as the Coalition first reported, tech limits cut many hours of public interaction in hearings while also opening convenient participation from home to those who hadn’t been able to attend in person. Tech improvements restored some of the lost hours in 2021.

Members in the Tuesday session talked again about the need for improved technology to allow as much hearing time as possible, according to the DCist report.

Reopening the Wilson Building (1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.) involves the Council staff and the public as well as the members. The chairman told the group that compliance has been high with a vaccination mandate for members and staff. The public may also be asked to show proof at entry and wear masks, and access may not be assured to members’ offices if there are staff shortages.

Opening Elsewhere in the District

The D.C. government executive branch agencies have largely returned to work but a November order of the mayor re-imposed masks for those in government areas where the staff interacts with the public.

The D.C. and federal courts have opened some office functions since the summer. A few jury trials are restarting, but most cases are being heard virtually in both. (See latest Superior Court order here.) Criminal trials must be held in person, and distancing requirements have required multiple courtrooms and other modifications. That has meant very few (for example, only 15 jury trials and six bench trials have been possible in the federal courthouse, according to a November 1 order).

One crime victim’s family charged in an emotional plea hearing in Superior Court recently that covid-related delays caused a “manifest injustice…just to clean out the files.” As Paul Duggan reported in The Washington Post, prosecutors reduced the charge in a 2018 shooting death over the course of several years and multiple offers and rejections from murder to voluntary manslaughter. But in the family view, nothing explained the lowered charge except that “this backlog is making deals happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” Prosecutors denied covid-related conditions affected their handling of the case.