Planned return to Representatives Hall unleashes a mix of emotions in State House
The 400-member House will reconvene in Representatives Hall in Concord on March 10. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)
This story was updated on March 1 at 10:22 a.m. to correct the partisan makeup of the vote on House Bill 1609.
In March 2020, members of the New Hampshire House met for a 19-hour, deadline-driven session in Representatives Hall that didn’t end until 4 a.m.
“Let’s never do that again, okay?” wrote one representative, Sherry Frost, a Dover Democrat, on Twitter.
A day later, Gov. Chris Sununu declared a state of emergency, citing the emerging coronavirus threat. The House has not met in Representatives Hall since.
This month, two years after leaving what is the longest continuously occupied state house chamber in the country, the House will return, Speaker Sherman Packard announced last week. The 400-member House will reconvene in Representatives Hall in Concord on March 10.
The news has provoked strong reactions. Republican members of the House have embraced it as an overdue recalibration after years of confusion and alternate venues. Democrats have denounced it as premature and said it fails to accommodate immunocompromised representatives. Health experts have urged mitigation measures be followed despite changing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And State House officials have stressed that technologies installed in recent years have made the chamber safer than ever.
Rumored for weeks, the announcement first emerged Wednesday evening, hours after Sununu announced the state was relaxing its guidance and no longer recommending universal masking.
“We have managed smartly throughout the pandemic with many risk-mitigation measures in place to ensure the people’s business continues to get done,” Packard said. “We’re now in a different phase of the pandemic, and without some return to normalcy, we risk long-lasting damage to this historic institution and its traditions.”
Sununu endorsed the move that day as well.
But Democrats were quick to reject it, with House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing calling it “a shortsighted decision.”
“Packing people into Representatives Hall like sardines with no mask or vaccination requirement or other prevention strategies is a disaster in the making,” Cushing said in a statement Wednesday.
And epidemiologists have given mixed advice. The omicron variant has receded in the state in recent weeks, with hospitalizations down from a peak in January and transmission rates slowly dropping. State Epidemiologist Ben Chan said any representative should be safe provided that the House had adequate measures put in place.
“We look at this as a package of interventions – layered prevention strategies,” he said in a press conference. “And so it depends entirely on what other measures they have in place, but, again, the whole purpose of vaccination is to be able to get people back to normal life functions, including the Legislature.”
Anne Sosin, a public health researcher and policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences at Dartmouth, is less sure. The state and the CDC were too hasty with their masking recommendations last week, Sosin says, and deferred too heavily to individual decision-making.
“Masking is now an individual-level behavior, not a community strategy,” Sosin said Monday. “And many of us are concerned about downgrading mitigation strategies to individual-level behaviors.”
The New Hampshire House, in following that guidance and moving back to the cramped Representatives Hall, is not acting soundly, Sosin added.
“I think it’s premature to institute and return to in-person legislative work without having mitigation strategies in place,” Sosin said. “New Hampshire is one of the oldest states in the country. I know that there are members of the Legislature who are personally at higher risk. And so it’s really important to sustain mitigation strategies to protect them and enable their full participation in legislative sessions.”
Sosin said that with representatives meeting so closely, and in an area with mixed mask usage and vaccination status, the risk of transmission is increased.
But, she added: “That risk can be reduced dramatically by really high-quality ventilation.”
On that front, State House officials say they have installed adequate technology. Because of a pre-COVID project to install air conditioning and filtration systems in Representatives Hall, the chamber is already equipped for the kind of advanced filtration necessary to meet the industry standard, said Terry Pfaff, the building’s chief operating officer.
The chamber’s systems can currently cycle out and replace the entire chamber’s air supply every 20 minutes, Pfaff said, a number three times the necessary rate to comply with the standard. Department of Administrative Services staff installed upgraded filters for the ventilation system to meet COVID-19 standards. And staff have installed “seven to 10” different plug-in HEPA filtration machines as an additional layer of prevention, Pfaff added.
“The system is a good system that we just luckily installed at the right time,” Pfaff said.
Democrats still have reservations. The tight quarters of the chamber mean that members who choose to wear masks cannot separate themselves as far from those without masks as in other venues, where chairs were distanced six feet apart. Democrats have raised the issue of immunocompromised members who have not been able to participate in House votes and have been unable to vote remotely. And they’ve cited specific worries too, like “voice votes”; under House tradition during voice votes, proponents and opponents shout “aye” and “no” as loud as possible, an activity that could spread viral load among unmasked members.
“Even though you have better ventilation systems, and you encourage people to wear masks, and you encourage people to stay home if they’re not feeling well, you’re still in a situation where you can’t social distance if you want to, and you may be ending up sitting near people that aren’t masked, and you don’t even know what their vaccination status is or their immunity level,” said Rep. Karen Ebel, a New London Democrat. “These are all things that run through a person’s mind when they’re deciding to go and serve.”
Effect on legislation
Those decisions could affect whether the move to the smaller venue reduces the number of Democrats who show up, Ebel said. A low turnout of Democrats would imperil their push for more changes to the the state’s new 24-week abortion ban, for example.
With the support of just one committee Republican, Rep. Ned Gordon of Bristol, the House Judiciary Committee voted, 11-10, to amend House Bill 1673 by adding an exception for a woman’s health and removing criminal penalties against providers, a penalty the medical community warns will deter doctors from practicing in the state.
The amendment also clarified when an ultrasound must be done prior to an abortion.
While the House agreed earlier this month to adding exceptions for rape, incest, and fatal fetal anomalies to the abortion law, by passing House Bill 1609, it did so in a 179-174 vote, with 12 Republicans voting for it and two Democrats voting against.
It spells uncertainty, too, for Democrats’ effort to stop bills that would make it far easier for employees to refuse a vaccine mandate.
House Bill 1210 seeks to add a “conscientious” or moral objection to the existing religious and medical exemptions from vaccinate mandates. The bill would also require employers to grant those exemptions without question. Currently, they can reject requests.
The bill remains with the House Labor, Industrial, and Rehabilitative Services Committee but its chances of arriving on the House floor with an ought to pass recommendation look good after a subcommittee endorsed it, 3-2.
“Is it really right to be put in a situation where the vote could potentially be affected because of the decision of which facility you’re going to use to have your meeting in?” Ebel said. “Is that the right thing for New Hampshire?”
Still, Ebel said the same Democrats who have shown up to past sessions in alternative venues would likely show up to the House chambers this month too.
‘Seems like it’s time’
The move back to Representatives Hall caps a two-year whirlwind of alternative options, from the University of New Hampshire Whittemore hockey arena to a parking lot to a sports arena to a four-star hotel, the Hilton by Doubletree in Manchester. And the costs have been high, ranging from $15,000 to $21,000 per day, Pfaff said. That money, which has helped pay for audiovisual equipment, cameras, remote voting buttons, box lunches, venue rentals, and more, has been almost all reimbursed with federal coronavirus relief funds, Pfaff said.
But as members continued to meet in the Manchester Doubletree in recent weeks, some Republicans have been vocal about their desire to return, even as Democrats have clamored for remote participation options for vulnerable representatives. The internal pressure from conservative members had mounted on Packard in recent weeks.
Democrats said they expected the House to return to the hall this year, but not as soon as March.
To Deputy Speaker Steve Smith, however, the move is essential to preserving the gravitas of the House.
“Seems like it’s time, doesn’t it?” he said. “You can pick any metric you want. I’ve noticed a lot of the people that were saying we should never have been meeting in person because of what the CDC was recommending are now attacking the CDC because the CDC doesn’t say what they like at the moment. That’s just garbage.
“… A representative who walks into that room and doesn’t feel the history, and the respect – a room that the Marquis de Lafayette has stood in, in 1825, Daniel Webster – if that doesn’t make you want to be more respectful and be a better version of yourself, you don’t belong here,” Smith added.
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