Without remote access, many people will not be able to participate in the legislative process. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Top New Hampshire lawmakers voted to remove the State House mask mandate Friday, in a move described as timely by Republican leaders but opposed by Democrats.
In an 8-4 vote Friday morning, the Joint Legislative Facilities Committee opted to remove a mask mandate that had been in effect since last year. All four Democrats – including the House and Senate minority leaders – voted no.
“The bottom line is a good portion of the population has been vaccinated, is continuing to be vaccinated, and the fact of that matter is, it’s time,” said House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican.
The reversal of rules will cover the State House grounds, which include the State House itself, the Legislative Office Building, and the entrances and tunnel connecting the two.
The change affects staff and lawmakers who have chosen to return to work in recent months. But the buildings will still be closed to the general public, lawmakers said.
The move follows a decision by Gov. Chris Sununu to lift the statewide mask mandate and require state employees to return to work in person, with masks optional.
New Hampshire legislative staff fall under the jurisdiction of the Legislature and weren’t subject to that initial order. But some Republicans cited the governor’s policy change as a model.
“The governor’s made a statement that masks are a good policy but not required anymore,” said Senate President Chuck Morse. “I think the Legislature should lead by example on that.”
Democrats expressed strong opposition Friday.
House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton argued that the change in policy would hurt the staff, some of whom aren’t fully vaccinated yet.
“Legislators have some choices as to whether or not they want to come in or not,” he said, noting that some staff do not have that option.
Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy argued that any moves reopening the building could put the public at risk.
“I have a very serious concern that if we start packing the building as it had been before that we are going to be putting people at risk,” Soucy said.
Rep. Karen Ebel, a New London Democrat, raised concerns about the use of the Legislative Office Building, which holds the hearing rooms for the House and has had circulation and air-quality issues for years.
“It’s a very problematical situation, especially in the time of a pandemic,” she said.
But Senate Chief of Staff Deb Vanderbeek said the office spaces for senators, located in the State House building, would include air ventilation systems where staff work.
As the House and Senate sessions have progressed, the approaches taken by lawmakers and staff have varied widely. Some committees, such as Senate Finance, have seen all members return to hold hearings in person. Others have been divided, with many House Republicans choosing to show up in person and House Democrats working remotely.
Friday’s reversal is not absolute. Senators – all of whom have personal offices – may require that masks be worn in their personal work spaces, said Terry Pfaff, chief operating officer of the General Court. But common spaces such as hallways and hearing rooms will no longer carry a mask requirement.
“We’re not telling any employees not to wear a mask,” Packard said. “It is completely their option to wear or not to wear a mask.”
Meanwhile, Republican leaders indicated they were interested in reopening the building to the public soon.
Morse said that a decision on that would come “shortly.” “It’ll be a matter of how comfortable everybody is with that position,” he said.
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