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Efforts to prevent spread of COVID-19 curtail pomp in throne speech ceremony

OTTAWA - COVID-19 has left little of normal life untouched and Wednesday's speech from the throne will be no exception.

Throne speeches are typically a pageantry of ceremonial grandeur.

But many of the traditional flourishes are being pared back this time around to respect public health protocols to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Governor General Julie Payette will still receive a 21-gun salute when she arrives at the Senate building, where she will deliver the speech on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government.

She'll also be serenaded by a military band, albeit reduced by more than one third the usual size to just five members.

And she'll inspect a ceremonial guard of 15 members of the Canadian Armed Forces - all of whom will be wearing masks and standing the requisite two meters apart.

Once in the Senate chamber, Payette will speak to a much smaller - and somewhat less illustrious - crowd than usual.

The Usher of the Black Rod, Greg Peters - the Senate's senior protocol officer, who is also responsible for the chamber's security - has notified senators that no special guests will be allowed in the chamber.

The public galleries will be empty, apart from just four reporters who'll be allowed in.

Ordinarily during a throne speech, the chamber is packed to the rafters with parliamentarians and dignitaries, including all nine Supreme Court justices garbed in their ermine robes. This time, according to Ross Ryan, a spokesman for Sen. George Furey, it's not certain if any of the justices will be in the chamber, or if they'll be represented by just the Chief Justice Richard Wagner.

Indeed, most senators themselves will not have their usual front row seats. At least 15 of the 105 senators must be in the chamber in order to achieve quorum. But the others are being advised to watch the proceedings on television or on their computers.

Same goes for MPs.

Ordinarily, the Usher of the Black Rod and other Senate officers march over to the House of Commons, bang on the door and summon MPs to attend the Queen's representative in the Senate. The MPs then walk over to the Senate, where they crowd behind the brass bar at the entrance to the chamber to listen to the speech.

That ritual was already upended for last December's throne speech, due to massive renovations to Parliament Hill's Centre Block. With the two parliamentary chambers now housed in separate buildings several busy city blocks apart, shuttle buses were used to ferry MPs to and from the Senate.

This time, government whip Mark Holland is negotiating with opposition parties to severely limit the number of MPs who will actually make the short trip between chambers.

“The numbers will be kept to a bare minimum,” he says.

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