See more of our coronavirus coverage, including community resources and personal stories.

Republican lawmakers in the Rhode Island House of Representatives and the Rhode Island Senate are imploring the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly “to hold limited and necessary committee hearings and House and Senate sessions.”

“Now is not the time to eliminate legislative participation,” the nine GOP members in the House and the five in the Senate write in a five-page letter to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Gov. Gina Raimondo. “Rather, Rhode Island will benefit with the inclusion of more voices and ideas as we navigate these uncharted waters.”

In the letter, the Republicans credit the Democrats for their leadership during the coronavirus crisis. But they also cite an immediate need for “a plan of action” that will allow the legislature “to meet and take necessary action on the critical issues we face.”

In particular, the Republicans cite the constitutional requirement for the General Assembly to pass a balanced budget, as well as the need to inform cities and towns on their level of state aid and to make potential changes to laws governing elections this year, due to the impact of COVID-19.

“The failure to provide prompt, thoughtful, and responsive direction to our municipalities will have significant and harmful ramifications throughout our state,” the Republicans write in their letter. “While the $300 million debt-authorization last week by the DEFB was prudent, going forward, this critical legislative authority and decision-making process must remain with the full membership of the General Assembly, not select Legislative Leadership.”

The GOP also cites the power granted to the governor under a state of emergency as another reason why the General Assembly should meet.

“While Governor Raimondo’s performance thus far has been exemplary, our General Assembly is the necessary check and balance on this nearly unbridled authority,” the Republican lawmakers write. “Specifically, the General Assembly is empowered by R.I.G.L. § 3-15-9(b) to end or modify this declared state of emergency. We must ensure the People’s representatives in the House and Senate are able to meet to analyze, and perhaps curb, the Governor’s authority under this state of emergency, in the unlikely event that need ever arises – as is the General Assembly’s solemn obligation.”

Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence) has been perhaps the loudest voice among Democrats in calling for the General Assembly to meet. Some other Democrats, such as Rep. Moira Walsh (D-Providence) point to Raimondo’s performance in saying it’s not necessary for the legislature to gather right now.

Legislative leaders have yet to signal a willingness to resume regular General Assembly meetings.

In emails to their members, Speaker Mattiello said he does not support remote meetings at this point, and President Ruggerio said he views them as a last resort.

According to Ruggerio, "The main impediment to remote sessions .... is the ability of the public to participate. It is true that many Rhode Islanders have access to technology. It is also true that many do not. Many people are not technologically savvy, and others may not be able to afford a laptop or smart device, or even access to the internet. The most vulnerable Rhode Islanders are among those most impacted by the decisions made in the Legislature. They are also the least likely to have access to the technology needed to participate in a remote process."

Mattiello wrote in part, "I believe the legislative process should be easily accessible to the public, particularly at the committee level where public testimony is extremely valuable. While written testimony can be shared with committee members, it is not the same as providing the opportunity for in-person testimony."

Later, in a joint statement, Mattiello and Ruggerio defender their stance: "All but a small handful of states are in recess or adjourned at this time. Public safety has to be paramount. Already we have seen a state legislator in Michigan succumb to COVID-19, and legislators in other states such as Georgia have been stricken by the coronavirus. Furthermore, during a State of Emergency, it is appropriate and necessary to have one strong voice for the people of Rhode Island. Governor Raimondo has provided clear directives. Rhode Islanders should follow the guidance and protocols of the Governor and the Department of Health, and we can help by communicating a unified message to our constituents."

In their letter, the Republicans suggest two different approaches for resuming legislative activity: staging remote meetings or utilizing the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

The GOP lawmakers say the possibilities for remote meetings include using the video-conferencing service Zoom.

Another idea: “Capitol TV can set up a mobile camera station in the Statehouse parking lot, where witnesses can offer live testimony from their cars, or walk up testimony, which will be live-streamed directly to a committee and the public through our chosen online platform. Since Capitol TV can live-stream on our modern phones, witnesses can observe the proceedings until it is their turn to drive up and offer testimony. In the event a witness does not have a modern phone, Capitol TV can broadcast our proceedings to the entire state over the traffic advisory channel, 1630AM.”

On the possibility of using the Dunk, the Republicans write: “Committees, the full House and Senate, and staff may utilize this large vacant arena to meet and maintain appropriate social distance, far in excess of the six-foot minimum. A reserved parking area with direct access to the Dunk may be utilized to ensure appropriate social distance is maintained at all times. Expert and administration witnesses may provide live testimony, or at the Chair’s discretion, transmit testimony to the Dunk via Capitol TV from the Statehouse or other designated locations. As with the remote meetings proposal (above), Capitol TV can set up a mobile station in one of the large adjacent Dunk parking garages for drive-up and walk-up testimony, broadcast the proceedings over Capitol TV and 1630AM (or similarly invest in a low-band FM transmitter), and also set up a remote outside viewing station, to enable robust public testimony to be streamed directly to committees.”