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While preparing for emergency sitting, P.E.I. MLAs consider new ways to function under COVID-19

P.E.I. MLAs were briefed Thursday on changes government will introduce to the Employment Standards Act, the first such briefing on work that will be put before the house during an emergency sitting of the legislature.

MLAs are planning for that sitting to begin May 22 and expecting it to last anywhere from one to three days, though the Speaker has yet to make that start date official. 

The regular spring sitting of the legislature, which would have started April 7, was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both the government of Dennis King and the Official Opposition are preparing legislative amendments to bring forward to deal with the pandemic.

The public and media galleries will be removed to allow physical distancing of all 27 MLAs. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

The house will also vote on whether to approve the appointment of three independent officers of the legislature, including P.E.I.’s first independent child and youth advocate. A competition for the position has concluded but the appointment requires a vote in the legislative assembly.

MLAs, staff now considered essential workers

This week, P.E.I. public health added MLAs and their staff to the province’s list of essential workers — technically a formality, because MLAs don’t fall under the jurisdiction of Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison, and would be allowed to meet regardless of any restrictions she put in place.

But they’re determined to follow her rules, and even postponed their target date for an emergency sitting to coincide with the expected start of Phase 2 of P.E.I.’s ease-back of COVID-19 restrictions on May 22.

The Liberals and PCs have also been determined to have a sitting that includes all 27 MLAs, even though the Green Party had pushed for a sitting with a bare quorum of 10 MLAs including the Speaker.

Accommodating all 27 MLAs and necessary staff in the Coles Building will require the removal of public galleries and the media gallery.

The last sitting of the P.E.I. Legislature ended Nov. 28. Every other provincial legislature in the country has met at some point in March or April. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

Even then, fitting in MLAs while accommodating physical distancing will be a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, as government house leader Sidney MacEwen explained it.

“Even some simple things like, who’s sitting in the far back corner needs to enter first” will have to be considered, MacEwen said. “You can’t have MLAs freely coming and going on the floor.” 

There had been talk of moving to larger chambers that would provide more space. MacEwen said that’s been investigated by assembly staff, but technical issues have made it an unlikely solution in the short term.

First meeting since pandemic struck

On Thursday, members of the standing committee on legislative management met to discuss some of the logistical challenges facing the assembly in the era of COVID-19.

It was the first meeting of any legislative committee since the pandemic struck, and while MLAs have grown accustomed to conducting caucus meetings and media interviews online, this committee meeting was held in person, in the legislative chambers because that’s all the rules of the legislature allow.

PC MLA Sidney MacEwen said they are considering all possible arrangements as MLAs will not be able to freely walk in and out due to social distancing measures. (CBC)

Rule changes to allow MLAs to conduct some of their business online using tools like Zoom are being explored, MacEwen said, but in order for any proposed changes to come into effect they would first have to be voted on during a physical meeting of the legislative assembly.

Opposition house leader Hannah Bell chairs the standing committee on rules, regulations, private bills and privileges, the committee through which any changes to the rules would be proposed.

MLAs look to be online by fall

“The idea of doing Zoom meetings for parliament is kind of shocking,” Bell said, referencing the long history of the Westminster parliamentary system and of the P.E.I. Legislature. 

But MLAs and assembly staff are exploring just what work could be conducted online, with the appropriate rule changes.

“We can do perhaps debate or committee meetings. We don’t know if we can pass legislation by electronic vote,” Bell said. “So there’s some digging in terms of what precedent is there, and what are we allowed or not allowed to do.”

Even if things sort of get back to some kind of normal, we have been given warning that it can go upside-down pretty fast— Green MLA Hannah Bell

Another challenge to holding a virtual sitting, Bell noted, is the lack of reliable high-speed internet service in many parts of rural P.E.I.

“So if we were having a debate with a vote and somebody’s internet cut out and they weren’t able to vote, what would that do to the vote?” she said.

‘It would be great that we could have some more flexibility around when and where we could meet,’ Green MLA Hannah Bell says. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Nonetheless she said some sort of rule changes need to be in place by the fall to allow virtual meetings and debate among MLAs.

“Even if things sort of get back to some kind of normal, we have been given warning that it can go upside-down pretty fast,” Bell said.

The current rules don’t allow MLAs to effectively perform their jobs under the kinds of restrictions imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19, she said.

“So we are going to have to get creative and find ways that allow us to do that work appropriately and effectively … but that reflect the changing world around us.”

COVID-19: What you need to know

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

Health Canada has built a self-assessment tool.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call 811. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested. A health professional at 811 will give you advice and instructions.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Clean regularly touched surfaces regularly.
  • Practise physical distancing.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government’s website.

More COVID-19 stories from CBC P.E.I.

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