State House an awkward fit in phased reopening

Boston Statehouse

The State House has been closed to the public since the evening of March 16. (Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS/File)

BOSTON (SHNS) – The pandemic replaced the typical buzz and hectic nature of the State House with subdued and quiet hallways, and two months after Gov. Charlie Baker announced his economic reopening plan there are still no indications that the building will return to any semblance of normalcy soon.

Over the past several weeks, indoor dining has resumed, workers have returned to offices in greater numbers, officials have relaxed quarantine guidance for some travelers visiting the state, and residents witnessed the state’s first day with zero COVID-19 deaths. State officials, however, have not offered any new guidance about one of their own workplaces, the State House, and when it might reopen in some fashion to the public.

While office buildings in general have been cleared to reopen with conditions, the State House also doubles as a tourist attraction and over the years has drawn scores of visitors looking to visit with elected officials, regular school trips, as well as large-scale protests during which people cram the hallways and chant or yell to ensure their voices are heard. It’s “the people’s house” and its openness has reflected that status.

Legislative leaders closed the State House to the public on the evening of March 16 and Senate President Karen Spilka said at the time that the building would remain closed “through the duration of the state of emergency.” There have been no indications that the governor will lift the state of emergency anytime soon. At a press conference Wednesday, Baker talked about the importance of continuing best practices, honed during the COVID-19 pandemic, “if and when we ever get out of the state of emergency that we find ourselves in today.”

The building has been sparsely populated since mid-March, even during lightly attended House and Senate sessions. The governor holds press conferences in the building’s only auditorium, and access to the State House is permitted for the six statewide constitutional officers, designated employees and personnel, official guests and members of the press. Lawmakers may participate in sessions remotely, under emergency rules.

Signs encouraging social distancing were a new addition this week in the otherwise nearly-empty State House corridors. (Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS)

Asked recently about when the State House might reopen, Gov. Charlie Baker said recently that the building is “actually under the jurisdiction of the Legislature.”

“Our orders, while they can choose to comply with them, they don’t have to. And I think they and we talk about this issue a lot, but fundamentally any decision to reopen this building, and it would have to be done with rules and guidance around all the kinds of issues we talk about when we talk about indoor gatherings, would have to be incorporated into that,” Baker said at a press conference on June 19. “But that fundamentally is an issue that we’ve had some conversations with the Legislature about but it’s very important for people to understand that they got a lot to say with respect to how that happens and on what on terms.”

Legislative leaders have in turn both deferred to the administration about the building’s status, and fallen back on their previous statements about the building.

The State House is managed by the Bureau of the State House, the head of which is appointed by the secretary of administration and finance, a Baker appointee. A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance declined to comment on requests for a State House reopening timeline or updated guidance.

The Bureau of the State House’s website says all sponsored events through August 31 are canceled and affected parties would be able to reschedule for a new date between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, with capacity and setup restrictions to be provided by July 1. The bureau will not be accepting new fall reservations, the site says.

Mark Dailey, the Senate’s operations director, walked down a third-floor corridor holding the Senate gavel prior to a Constitutional Convention session May 13. (Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS)

A spokesperson for Senate President Spilka’s office said the Senate is having frequent conversations about the steps needed to safely reopen the building to staff and members of the public.

“Those conversations are ongoing, and we will be proceeding cautiously. For now, the State House will remain closed,” the spokesperson Antonio Caban said.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office said only that “the State House remains closed” in response to questions about reopening the building, and deferred to the Baker administration.

Offices were allowed to bring back more workers and increase their capacity from 25 to 50 percent of their workforce in mid-June, but there has not been a marked increase in personnel working inside the building although social distancing reminder signs have gone up.

The fourth floor State House Cafe reopened in mid-May. Customers can get a coffee, sandwiches, or a snack but business isn’t like it once was when the building was teeming with workers as well as advocates, tourists and lobbyists.

Proprietor Frank Masone said he only gets 25 to 50 people coming in per day compared to the hundreds of orders he used to fill pre-pandemic.

“I don’t foresee my business turning around until probably January. I basically have to write this year off between loss of stock, the loss of wages,” he said. “I think that people are still afraid to enter the building and then there’s just no public access. So there is another source that I’m losing.”

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