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Virus concerns disrupt work at U.S. state capitols

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Mounting concerns about the coronavirus spread to state capitols across the country Thursday, as some lawmakers halted their sessions, shut out the public and scrambled to finish work on essential spending bills to keep government going.

Even in states with few confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease, publicity over the cancellations of major sporting events, conferences and mass gatherings added to the pressure on state lawmakers to protect the public — and themselves — from potential exposure to the virus.

On any given day, hundreds or even thousands of people pass through state capitols, including school children on tours, members of interest groups gathering for rallies, lobbyists, journalists and government employees.

“We feel it may be in the best interest for us not to be in this petri dish that we all show up in every week,” Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz said Thursday while announcing that the chamber was suspending its regular sessions until at least March 30.

Both houses of the Illinois General Assembly canceled their scheduled sessions for next week. So did both chambers of the Delaware General Assembly, which also shut down public tours of its building. Delaware’s legislative leaders said they would re-evaluate whether to resume session on a weekly basis, equating the missed days to a more familiar occurrence — snow days — that can be made up.

After adopting a budget plan Thursday with $100 million for coronavirus-related needs, the Georgia General Assembly announced it was suspending its session indefinitely.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases is increasing. In the U.S., the total has topped 1,200, with three dozen deaths. Worldwide, more than 127,000 have been infected, and more than 4,700 have died.

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Congress has closed public access to the nation’s Capitol until April. But unlike Congress, which meets throughout most of the year, many state legislatures have regular sessions that are limited in length by their state constitutions. That means they can’t afford to take as many days off if they are to finish their work by their deadlines.

Lawmakers in Washington state, where the greatest number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths have occurred, were scrambling to pass a budget that includes $200 million for the state’s coronavirus response before their 60-day session came to its scheduled adjournment Thursday.

In South Dakota, Republican state Rep. Spencer Gosch left the Capitol on Thursday to get tested for COVID-19 and other possible illnesses after coming down with a cough and chest congestion. Gosch said he was avoiding contact with people as a precaution. But his colleagues pressed forward with their work, trying to complete a budget on Thursday because it one was one of their final scheduled days for the session.

While the Missouri Senate took off for an extended spring break, the Missouri House pushed up its work — scheduling a rare Sunday meeting of the budget committee — to try to get its version of a spending plan completed next week so that it also could take a break.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recommended that lawmakers pass the most important bills quickly so they can go home for the year. He proposed saving instead of spending $1.2 billion of the state’s projected $1.5 billion budget surplus because of the uncertainties over how the pandemic will affect the economy.

Some state legislatures have chosen to continue meeting, though not in their normal fashion.

Connecticut lawmakers voted to change their rules to allow members to cast committee votes by phone while the governor’s emergency public health declaration is in effect. They also postponed public hearings schedule for this week and next.

Leaders of the Maryland General Assembly announced that, starting next week, the public will no longer be invited to hearings for legislation. People will be encouraged to submit electronic comments to lawmakers instead of testifying in person.

“This decision is made for public health reasons — to do everything we can to increase social distancing and do everything within our power to ensure that we can limit the risk of the spread of this virus,” Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones said in a joint written statement.

The New Hampshire House, whose 400 members are second in size only to the U.S. House, has continue to meet despite coronavirus concerns because lawmakers are pushing up against a March 26 deadline to act on bills. State Rep. Judith Spang has been quarantined for more than a week because she recently traveled to Italy, where the coronavirus has hit especially hard.

Business at the Kansas Statehouse continued as almost as usual Thursday, with students acting as legislative pages, groups of visitors touring and the first floor set up with displays honoring Kansas’ aviation industry. In Tennessee, Republican legislative leadership pushed back against Democratic calls to limit non-essential legislative meetings or even briefly halt the session.

Instead, House and Senate speakers released a statement Thursday encouraging the public to reschedule or postpone activities in the Capitol. The call came after both chambers had large groups invited onto their floors earlier that day — ranging from school groups to the Tennessee Titans football coach — who shook hands with many lawmakers.

Associated Press writers Randall Chase in Dover, Delaware; Jeffery Collins in Columbia, South Carolina; Stephen Groves in Pierre, South Dakota; Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Steve Karnowski in St. Paul, Minnesota; Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Tennessee; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.