BOSTON (SHNS) – On the same day that Gov. Charlie Baker’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for executive branch employees took effect, House lawmakers and staff were informed that they must show proof of vaccination by Nov. 1 if they want to work physically from the State House, where they must also wear masks in all House-controlled spaces.
The new rules were issued by the House COVID-19 Working Group, led by Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan, and were expected after the House in late September voted to require vaccinations to be present in the State House.
The guidelines are consistent with the recommendation made by a previous iteration of Hogan’s group on how to proceed with reopening the State House in four phases, beginning with essential personal and concluding when the public can be welcomed back to the building.
Of the nearly 40,500 executive branch employees covered by Baker mandate, the administration reported that 95.2 percent complied by Sunday’s deadline to show proof of vaccination or request an exemption. That left 1,571 employees in violation of the policy.
While Baker’s mandate covered state employees regardless of whether they work remotely, the House policy continues to allow anyone who is not vaccinated to work from home, or to come into compliance to return to the State House after the Nov. 1 deadline.
The memo sent Monday to all staff included instructions for how employees can upload written proof of vaccination, such as a copy of a COVID-19 vaccination card, as well as guidelines for mask wearing in the building and a recommendation that employees open windows in their office during work hours as weather allows to improve airflow.
House Democrats and Republicans engaged in a heated debate over the vaccine mandate last month during which Minority Leader Brad Jones questioned the amount of authority the House was voting to give to Hogan’s group to set working conditions for hundreds of members and staff.
Jones specifically wondered how the policies would be enforced, and whether he would be forced to wear a mask while sitting alone in his office. The new rules make clear he would not.
“I am very uncomfortable with the institution giving that power to the working group,” said Jones, who is vaccinated.
All House members and staff were told to provide proof of vaccination, or request a religious or medical exemption, by Nov. 1 in order to continuing working from the State House, regardless of whether they are considered “core” House employees and part of “Phase 1.”
The memo still encourages employees that would be covered by Phase 2 to submit their vaccination cards now to “ensure a timely transition” when the COVID-19 Working Group determines it’s time to proceed to Phase 2, which would broaden access to the State House to all remaining House staff and employees, “along with individuals who have a need to conduct business at the State House.”
In the first phase of State House reopening, the COVID-19 Working Group said only core staff should be working from the building, and defined those employees as anyone designated essential that works for Speaker Ron Mariano, a member of his leadership team, House Republican leadership or staff of four key committees.
Those committees include the House Committee on Ways and Means, the Committee on Bills in Third Reading, the Committee on Steering, Policy and Scheduling and the Special Committee on Redistricting.
The working group said that during Phase I masks will still be required in all House-controlled spaces, including offices and hearing rooms, though a legislator will be permitted to remove their mask when speaking from the rostrum.
Members and staff will also be allowed to remove their masks if they are in their offices alone, and at least 6 feet away from anyone else.
“However, we do encourage common sense and respect for others when choosing whether to remove one’s mask,” the memo states.
While the policy memo states that anyone in violation of the vaccination policy “may be subject to discipline,” it does not spell out the consequences. The order the House passed in September directed the working group to develop disciplinary procedures for any member found to be in violation of the order, including the possible loss of access to personal and committee staff.
Hogan said some of those decisions may need to wait until after House leadership obtains a better understanding of how many legislators and staff are already vaccinated.
The Bureau of the State House completed an energy/HVAC modernization project in 2020, and in addition to the use of high-quality air filters has outfitted certain spaces — including the House Chamber, Gardner Auditorium and the Great Hall — with Kwikool medical grade air conditioning units.
The COVID-19 Working Group said Monday it would also work with the Bureau of the State House to explore options to procure additional air purification devices for offices and hearing rooms, while being mindful of budgets and other considerations.