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1.22.21 – JACKSON, Miss. (AP)

Mississippi legislators are changing some of their work habits to try to avoid a repeat of last year’s coronavirus outbreak at the state Capitol.

At least two senators and at least one House member recently tested positive for the virus, and some other legislators are being told to quarantine and get tested after being near those colleagues.

“We will get through this together,” Republican Speaker Philip Gunn told the House on Thursday.

In normal times, it’s common for lobbyists, journalists and state agency leaders to sit or stand shoulder to shoulder to watch legislators work during committee meetings. The goal now is to put more space between people.

Small rooms that crowd easily are now off-limits. House and Senate leaders said Thursday that committees will conduct some business online starting next week. Legislators will able to debate and vote on bills through a meeting app commonly used by businesses.

The public won’t be able to connect through the app, but people can watch on the Mississippi Legislature YouTube channel.

Weather permitting, legislators will sit outside Tuesday to hear Republican Gov. Tate Reeves give his State of the State address. That event usually takes place in the House chamber, with senators, Supreme Court justices and other elected officials crowding into the space.

About four dozen of Mississippi’s 174 legislators tested positive for the coronavirus in 2020, and a few of them were hospitalized. It was the worst outbreak at any state Capitol in the U.S., and it happened after some people shunned masks and ignored recommendations to avoid packed elevators and up-close conversations.

Masking is more widespread so far this session, but some legislators are still going bare-faced. With or without masks, some still socialize at close range.

People entering the Capitol each day are asked screening questions and are having their temperature taken. But, those precautions were in place before the big outbreak last year.

Mississippi’s annual legislative session started Jan. 5 and is scheduled to end April 4. Legislators are typically at the Capitol four or five days a week.

Since the beginning of the session, the Senate has only used large rooms for committee meetings, and those have meetings have been streamed online.

Representatives are having some committee meetings in the House chamber — the largest space available.

The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Thursday that he has spoken to House and Senate leaders about coronavirus precautions. He said the biggest danger for spreading the virus can happen during “after-hours social stuff.”

“Meals with people who are not in the same household can be dangerous,” Dobbs said.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.