Plexiglass houses: Parliaments adapt to the coronavirus age
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — “Pfft, pfft...” The sound came through loud and clear on Greece’s parliament TV during a change of speakers: the sound of disinfectant sprayed onto microphones and the new plexiglass box installed around the podium.
This is parliament in the time of coronavirus. Across Europe and beyond, parliaments have had to adapt their operations to stop the virus from spreading through the corridors of power. Social distancing, online debates, masks, plexiglass, hazard tape — each country’s legislature has its own measures.
A three-sided plexiglass box now adorns the speaker’s podium to protect parliament staff seated just beneath. After each speaker, a worker usually in a mask and gloves wipes down the plexiglass and microphones with disinfectant. Only a fraction of the 300 lawmakers are allowed inside at any one time, with just one or two people seated in each row. Those unable to attend debates vote by letter.
SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
Only the minimum number of lawmakers are allowed into meetings in Portugal's parliament and in Spain's Congress of Deputies, where sometimes just one person per party speaks to a near-empty hall.
Spanish parliament's disinfecting efforts have cast a spotlight on some of the civil servants charged with cleaning the marble corridors and wooden balustrades of the 19th-century building. Images of cleaner Valentina Cepeda wiping down the microphone between each speech were broadcast live in March, turning her into an online celebrity and earning her a round of applause from lawmakers, a rare instance of consensus among politicians.
In hard-hit Italy, masks are the essential accessory for lawmakers during socially distanced debates. Taking one’s mask off, even to speak, risks the ire of colleagues. Several lawmakers heckled Premier Giuseppe Conte, shouting “mask, mask,” when he removed his to speak during a recent debate. Conte and lower chamber speaker Roberto Fico retorted that the government’s seats are more distanced than the lawmakers’, therefore speaking without a mask is allowed.
Parliament in Britain, whose Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized in intensive care with a bout of COVID-19, has adopted what it calls a “hybrid” model, with most lawmakers attending debates by video conference.
A maximum 50 of the 650 legislators are allowed inside the House of Commons chamber at any one time, where black and yellow hazard tape on the floor helps keep people apart. Red “no sitting” signs are affixed to the green Commons benches. Screens erected around the wood-paneled chamber show those participating remotely. Lawmakers plan to begin voting electronically rather than by the age-old method of traipsing out of the Commons and through “yes” or “no” lobbies.
Dozens of British lawmakers, advisers, civil servants and journalists have contracted coronavirus, likely infected in the cramped precincts of Parliament and other government buildings.
The Bundestag has been holding regular sessions with the appropriate social distancing. Public viewing areas have been closed so politicians can occupy that space and ensure each maintains the appropriate distance from the other, sitting several chairs apart. Parliament President Wolfgang Schaeuble said in April that amid a global crisis like the pandemic, face-to-face discussion is more important than ever. “Parliamentary debate cannot be supplanted by video conferences, and also not through e-mail votes,” he said.
FRANCE, BELGIUM, NETHERLANDS
Both houses of parliament in France, and the Belgian and Dutch parliaments, have limited the number of lawmakers and staff who can attend sessions, and those present must maintain social distance.
In France's lower house, the National Assembly, masks are a personal choice for lawmakers, although parliament staff wear them. Senators in the upper house have been asked to work from home and only appear in person when necessary. Visitors are banned.
Voting in the Belgian parliament is done remotely, making for a largely empty chamber.
In Russia, it’s mostly business as usual. When the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, held its last meeting on April 17, many members participated remotely. Some of those present wore masks, but many others, including Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, didn’t. Disinfection equipment has been installed, but lawmakers sat close to each other, paying no attention to social distancing. In March, 12 lawmakers were quarantined after one lower house member failed to report his foreign trip. Duma members also have undergone frequent coronavirus tests.
Croatian lawmakers faced a problem of a different nature, as an earthquake damaged the parliament building, forcing them to seek alternative locations to hold their sessions. They eventually settled on the large conference hall of a Zagreb hotel for a session in early April, sitting on chairs placed far from each other. They have since returned to the parliament building, but with the appropriate social distancing.
Lebanese lawmakers took a more drastic step. They moved their parliamentary session to a cavernous Beirut theater to allow enough room for social distancing. Outside the theater, known as the UNESCO palace, white uniformed paramedics sprayed disinfectant on mask-wearing lawmakers as they arrived. The staggered, three-day session in late April was the first since Lebanon imposed a coronavirus lockdown in March.
Associated Press journalists across Europe and in Lebanon contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak