John A. Wilson Building
John A. Wilson Building Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Well, the coronavirus has finally done it. It has (possibly) destroyed the only thing LL has to look forward to every week: live D.C. Council meetings.

The District’s most significant response to the global pandemic that has taken thousands of lives and infected hundreds of thousands more so far includes Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s declaration of a state of emergency and public health emergency.

But next week, the D.C. Council will likely consider emergency legislation aimed at doing a lot of good things, such as providing unemployment benefits for some who can’t work due to the virus and grant support for small businesses feeling a pinch, as well as one disappointing thing: The bill allows the Council to meet and vote virtually.

For regular observers of the local legislature, this particular provision, though likely wise in these germy times, will rob the public of an opportunity to tell their elected officials what they really think of the jobs they’re doing. And it will rob LL of the satisfaction of watching those officials argue, debate, and bicker.

“We want to be respectful of the open meetings law,” says Chairman Phil Mendelson, who authored the bill. “And I think there is technology that will allow us to do that, but the main idea is I have to think about a possible extreme situation.”

For example, Mendelson says, if a couple staffers catch the virus, and the Department of Health quarantines the Council, how will they meet?

Mendelson says they’re still ironing out the details, but the virtual Council meeting could either happen conference-call-style or over video, where the public could watch or listen in but not participate.

In yet another blow to one of LL’s few remaining delights, the legislation would also allow agencies to delay responses to Freedom of Information Act requests as long as the mayor’s public health emergency is in place or if the agency is closed due to the virus. The bill also gives the mayor an extension on submitting her 2021 budget to the Council from March 19 to May 1, or five days after the state of emergency ends.

The legislation would also provide unemployment benefits for workers who are quarantined due to the virus as well as those who cannot work because their employer had to stop or scale back operations. Small businesses could apply for grants to help pay employees’ wages and benefits, operating costs, and loans under the bill, which also bars utility companies from shutting off gas and water services for non-payment and prohibits landlords from evicting tenants.

Mendelson emphasizes that the bill will likely undergo some changes before next Tuesday’s meeting, which is expected to take place in the Council chambers for the time being. He says he’s meeting Bowser tomorrow about her priorities for the legislation.

LL should note that this is all temporary. Emergency legislation in D.C. remains in effect for 90 days.