‘Surreal’ day at the Georgia Capitol as virus spurs indefinite recess

The halls under the Gold Dome were quiet and empty Friday, other than a few staffers and even fewer lobbyists. Workers wiped down doorknobs. A handful of police monitored the House and Senate.

A fraction of Georgia's 236 lawmakers filed into the Capitol on Friday morning, marking the beginning of an indefinite suspension of business amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.

"It was surreal, but we're doing the right thing — trying to get out of the Capitol to make sure we're not part of the problem in spreading any kind of sickness or illness," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson of Stone Mountain.

The House and Senate on Thursday announced they would suspend operations until further notice after Friday as the number of Georgians infected with the coronavirus ticks up and cancellations of large events continue to roll in. News broke while the Senate was in session Friday that The Masters would postpone its annual event that was scheduled for next month.

"We all agree at this point in time there are things more important than us being here, and that's taking care of families and the elderly and the young," said House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. "There's no book written on how to deal with these kinds of situations, so we're going to deal with it as it comes."

Lawmakers will return Monday for an 8 a.m. special session to approve an emergency health declaration from Gov. Brian Kemp.

But it’s unclear when legislators will return for regular business to complete the legislative session — or if they will have to abbreviate the 40-day session because of concerns about the virus.

“We’re going to let the situation dictate when we come back,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said. “But we certainly want to make sure that everybody in and around this process is safe.”

The General Assembly has to come back at some point because only one chamber, the House, has approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. The Georgia Constitution requires the Legislature to approve a budget.

Being out of session for days or weeks could slow down efforts to pass the budget, but leaders in both chambers said they were confident they would meet the deadline, even if it meant returning only for that purpose.

About 30 legislators showed up for an abbreviated workday Friday after the House voted on bills until midnight the day before.

In front of mostly empty chambers, Ralston and Duncan referred bills to committees before adjourning indefinitely “in the interest of the health and safety of members, staff and the public” to prevent the spread of coronavirus. No votes were taken Friday.

Where the halls were filled the day before, only a couple of lobbyists remained. Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said he wanted to keep an eye on legislators even though few of them were present.

“Operating in the dark is the happiest place for unwelcome legislation,” Herring said.

No mischief appeared to arise, however. Lawmakers quickly dispersed after the session, and a couple of committee meetings were canceled.

Lawmakers will be unable to do their jobs or raise money for their re-election campaigns. Representatives and senators aren’t allowed to raise money while the Legislature is in session, even if that session has been suspended.

"I've been here for 30 years, and this is the first time we've been suspended," said state Rep. Michele Henson, a Democrat from Stone Mountain. "It's unprecedented. There are a lot of what-ifs."

But the sentiment among all was it was better to be safe than sorry.

"We are not in a crisis mode. We're in a cautious mode," said Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Gainesville Republican. "And I think that that cautious mode dictates the day. … And remember, do what your mom says, wash your hands."