House reopening plan features vaccine verification, masks

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – State representatives and House employees would be required to prove they are vaccinated by Nov. 1 to work in-person at the State House under a legislative panel’s new proposal, which also calls for reopening the building on a phased but undated timetable and continuing to livestream all public hearings.

An all-Democrat House working group on Monday submitted recommendations for how the branch’s leaders should chart a path toward resuming in-person business more than a year and a half after the pandemic prompted officials to close the State House’s doors to the public.

The group’s suggestions, which landed one week after House Speaker Ron Mariano voiced frustration with unnamed lawmakers who he said oppose vaccine requirements, call for all elected representatives, their staffs and other House employees to maintain full vaccination status against COVID-19 “on an ongoing basis.”

State representatives and House workers would be required to submit proof of vaccination with the House’s human resources department by Nov. 1, about two weeks before both branches wrap up their formal lawmaking business for the year.

Anyone who fails to do so would be barred from accessing House-controlled areas on Beacon Hill such as the House chamber or the speaker’s office and instead required to continue working remotely.

Asked about potential consequences for lawmakers who do not comply with that order, Mariano said leaders would “evaluate those circumstances when they occur.”

“You can sit here and speculate a million different scenarios that you’d have to answer,” Mariano said. “We’d like to deal with some facts. Let’s see who’s going to cooperate and participate and who isn’t, and then we’ll deal with those folks almost on a one-by-one basis. My anticipation is most people will cooperate in one form or another. My hope is we won’t need any further actions.”

The House currently has 159 members and numbers are not available on how many of them are vaccinated. About 78 percent of Massachusetts adults ages 18 and older are fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the country, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones could not be reached immediately for comment on Monday.

Any representatives or staff would receive paid time off to get vaccinated or recover from side effects. The working group will continue to work with human resources and the House’s legal counsel to develop a system for providing proof of vaccination and an exemption process for those with qualifying disabilities, medical conditions or religious beliefs.

The House vaccine and verification mandate is subject to a vote from the full chamber. Mariano did not offer a specific date for the vote, saying only that it would take place once the Rules Committee finishes drafting it, and said he expects a majority of representatives to approve the policy.

The House plans to meet in a formal session on Thursday.

Last week, without naming individual lawmakers, Mariano said some representatives opposed a House vaccine mandate and refused to disclose whether they had been vaccinated.

More than a dozen representatives co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit limiting access to public spaces and some businesses based on vaccination status. Mariano said Monday that those proposals will “have a hearing and go through the committee process.”

“My intention is to do what’s best for the 500 people that work underneath (me),” he said. “What reps decide to do for themselves, I can’t control.”

Senate President Karen Spilka told all senators and staff on Aug. 24 that they must prove their full vaccination status by Oct. 15, and Gov. Charlie Baker mandated vaccines for about 42,000 state employees.

Representatives on the panel also recommended expanding the House chamber’s mask mandate to apply to all House-controlled spaces, including offices and hearing rooms, and to external personnel visiting the building as well as employees.

They called for the House to formalize its contact tracing and quarantine protocols, backing a requirement for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 to remain out of the workplace for 14 days and show no symptoms before returning. Close contacts or those who are symptomatic but have not tested positive should stay remote until they receive a negative PCR test result.

The reopening group set its sights on a gradual return to in-person business at the State House, but offered scant details about how long the transition should take. Since March 2020, the building has been closed to the public and lawmakers in both branches have been encouraged to participate in sessions and committee hearings remotely.

Under the panel’s recommendations, the State House would reopen in four steps. The first phase would allow the return of any representatives who wish to return for in-person voting and “core staff” who must be physically present for House business.

The second phase 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.”

Phase three would allow members of the public to enter the State House, by appointment, for meetings and committee hearings. The State House would then be fully open to the public for all activities in the fourth and final phase.

“A staggered timeline for reopening will enable the House to implement and pre-test some of the protocols identified in these recommendations,” the working group wrote in its recommendations. “It will give the House an opportunity to more effectively evaluate and manage the State House’s physical space, for different groups of people and different House-controlled areas of the building, as we continue working with building counterparts to adopt protocols for additional spaces. It will also allow the House to monitor COVID-19 trends and respond quickly should a change in the course of the pandemic become apparent.”

The group did not offer suggested dates or durations for any of those phases. The Senate, the Baker administration and other constitutional officers also occupy officers and have worked based in the building.

Hearings could evolve into a hybrid physical and remote format under the working group’s plan. The panel said lawmakers should maintain a virtual option for public hearings, which “will be key to managing available office space for future in-person hearings,” and deploy a system that allows for some in-person participation.

“This model employs multiple interventions to reduce the risk of indoor airborne transmission, such as controlling the number of people allowed in hearing rooms, monitoring ventilation and air quality, requiring masks, setting up a pre-registration system on MyLegislature, and facilitating remote participation through hybrid hearings to reduce in-person crowding,” the group wrote.

The working group had seven members, all of whom are Democrats: Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan, Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management Co-chair Rep. Bill Driscoll and Vice Chair Rep. Jon Santiago, House Committee on Human Resources and Employee Engagement Chair Rep. Dan Cahill, House Committee on Operations, Facilities and Security Chair Rep. Joe McGonagle, Joint Committee on Racial Equity, Civil Rights and Inclusion Co-chair Rep. Bud Williams, and Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Vice Chair Rep. Natalie Blais.

(Katie Lannan contributed reporting.)

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