BOSTON (SHNS) – Eyeing a way to get back to face-to-face dealmaking in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, House leaders on Thursday will ask lawmakers to approve a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all members and staff who want to work from the State House, brushing off the concerns of some legislators who believe it’s a step too far.
“We had to find a way to get back into the building and the vaccine mandate is going to allow us to begin planning how we’re going to get back into the building and do it safely,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat who led the working group that crafted the House’s reopening plan.
The vaccine mandate is just one piece of a four-phase reopening plan that the working group recommended on Monday that would gradually allow for more legislators and staff, lobbyists, advocates and, eventually, the general public to return to the building.
Democratic leadership introduced an order on Wednesday to begin implementing some of those recommendations, including the vaccine mandate, and have proposed to create a new House Working Group on COVID-19 that would guide future steps and decisions.
The membership of the new working group, according to House leaders, would likely be the same as the group that crafted the reopening plan, and Nov. 1 would remain the target date for everyone covered by the new rules to submit proof of vaccination.
“All paths lead through this order,” said Hogan, explaining that further decisions on a timeline for reopening and when to encourage members to return fully to the chamber will depend on how many people report being vaccinated.
The order, drafted by House Rules Committee Chairman William Galvin, would also allow for remote voting to continue beyond Oct. 1, declaring a state of emergency in the House due to COVID-19 and the Delta variant. The emergency declaration would trigger a set of temporary rules that would allow for the continuation of remote voting and participation for lawmakers who are either unvaccinated or not ready to return in-person.
The House in July adopted a set of permanent House rules to govern the body for the 2021-2022 session, and the remainder of those rules are set to take effect on Oct. 1. Those rules include the continued livestreaming of all informal and formal sessions and some small changes to how committee votes are shared publicly.
The emergency declaration would last indefinitely until the House voted to end it, a change from the initial rule that would have required extensions every 30 days.
While Democrats and Republicans believe the vaccination rate among members and staff in the House is high, some Republicans are balking at being required to show proof of vaccination to come to work and represent their constituents.
“Unfortunately, it appears leadership has forgotten that we don’t work for them or for other members of the Legislature. We work for our constituents and the idea that members would not be allowed to come vote in the building because our colleagues say so is absolutely outrageous,” said Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican.
Lombardo co-sponsored a bill filed Rep. Peter Durant that would would prohibit state government and some private sector employers from limiting access to public spaces and buildings based on vaccination status. At least 10 other lawmakers signed on to the bill, including two Democrats.
Lombardo said he was talking with colleagues about how they might respond on Thursday, but was adamant that House leadership has “no right to my personal medical history.” “If this passes it appears I won’t be permitted to go into the State House and do the people’s work,” Lombardo told the News Service.
Asked if that meant he was not vaccinated or simply not willing to share his status, Lombardo said, “I’m saying it’s none of their business and that information belongs to me and my family.”
The new eight-member working group, which would include one Republican, would also be empowered to establish any policies or procedures required for the implementation of the mandate and any other safety measures, such as masking, physical distancing or testing. Exemptions would be offered to anyone with a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief that interferes with their ability to be vaccinated from COVID-19.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones said he is vaccinated and has no problem personally showing proof of his status, but does plan to vote against the order unless it is substantially reworked. He said he does not know the vaccination status of 29 members in the House GOP caucus, but the North Reading Republican said he is unaware of anyone who is unvaccinated.
Jones said he was concerned with how much authority the order would give to the new working group, and questioned why the reopening plan did not include any metrics for when the House would begin to move through the four phases of reopening, or when the emergency rules would expire.
“Is it hospitalizations, statewide vaccinations, some combination of things? Or is it as soon as the Patriots win another Super Bowl. We just don’t know,” Jones said.
Hogan did not rule out attaching metrics to future stages of the reopening once the House gets a better sense of how many people are vaccinated, and she said if something rises to the need for another vote in the House she would be open to that as well.
The third-ranking Democrat, however, said she did not agree with any member suggesting the decision to get vaccinated should be a strictly personal one.
“Respectfully, it really isn’t a personal decision when you’re in our chamber, when you sit so close to one another. You know and I know and everyone who says that knows when we are having a debate, everyone is moving around, communicating. There’s work getting done. It’s a beehive of activity and to say it would be safe to have members in there that were unvaccinated would feel unsafe and unsound,” Hogan said.
Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat who is undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, told WBZ on Tuesday that she takes it personally that some of her colleagues would balk at getting vaccinated so that she could feel safe coming to the State House, but Durant told the News Service last week that if some members have health concerns they can stay home.
“Those folks need to do what they feel is right for them, and that’s the whole point. It’s what you feel protects you,” he said.
Jones said he wished the working group had presented a draft plan and allowed more time for members to consider it, rather than pushing ahead with a vote. Noting the recommendation that masks also be worn in all offices and shared House spaces, Jones said the potential is there to have “stricter guidelines for being and working in the building than had been in place when we had no vaccine.”
While the order states that the vaccination status of all legislators and employees of the House will be kept confidential, Jones questioned whether enforcement of the ban on unvaccinated employees would require the sharing of a list with court officers or another entity of those not allowed in the building or the chamber.
In the Senate, where there are just three Republicans, Senate President Karen Spilka did not call for a vote on her chamber’s vaccine mandate. Instead, her office simply announced that the Senate would be following the recommendations of its working group and requiring proof of vaccination by members and staff by Oct. 15.
She encountered little, if any, public pushback from her membership.
Gov. Charlie Baker has also imposed a vaccine mandate for more than 45,000 executive branch employees under his control, though he continues to negotiate the details with various public employee unions and has been sued by the union representing the State Police to delay implementation on Oct. 17.