BOSTON (SHNS) – Two state representatives who initially refused to disclose their vaccination status have since reversed course and complied with the House’s vaccine mandate, Speaker Ronald Mariano said Monday while continuing to voice his concerns about the challenges of reopening the State House to the public.
Neither Mariano nor his staff have disclosed the identities of the representatives who refused to attest to their vaccination status or seek an exemption by the House’s Nov. 1 mandate deadline.
Mariano told reporters Monday that the number of House lawmakers who were out of compliance dropped from seven last week to five after a pair changed course in recent days.
“We are so happy to see that the mandated vaccination, the vote that we took that asked all members to get vaccinated, has an impact,” Mariano said. “We continue to work with folks as they go through some of their requests for them to be removed from the requirements, but we’re happy with the progress that we’re making.”
The House’s mandate, approved with a 131-28 vote in September, bans representatives or aides from working in the State House unless they submit proof of immunization against the highly infectious virus or receive an approved exemption.
While many State House workers have obtained the COVID-19 vaccine willingly, managers of State House personnel have mandated vaccinations in an attempt to get vaccination numbers up as high as possible and as part of a still-vague plan to gradually reopen the building.
As of Wednesday, 362 executive branch workers were serving a suspension for refusing to comply with Gov. Charlie Baker’s order requiring vaccination or an exemption, and another 141 had left their jobs. Senate leaders, meanwhile, say 100 percent of that chamber’s elected officials and staff either submitted proof or sought an exemption.
Although vaccine mandates are now in effect in both chambers, many constitutional offices and all executive agencies, legislative leaders still don’t have a timeline for allowing the public — including activists and lobbyists as well as tourists — back into the building.
Both Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka on Monday defended the Legislature’s mostly remote model, arguing that allowing more people under the golden dome is not as simple as reopening schools, restaurants or other public spaces.
“The people’s house welcomes all the people, and therefore you don’t have a closed environment that you would have at a school,” Mariano said. “This isn’t just a workplace for us. It is a tourist attraction. It is open to tours, it’s open to travelers walking in to just take in the grandeur of the building, so it’s not as simple as controlling the people who work here.”
Most lawmakers have been working remotely for nearly 20 months, and House and Senate leaders have for much of the pandemic encouraged legislators and staff to participate in meetings and cast votes from home if possible.
Mariano said the House is “moving into” the second phase of a reopening plan its working group crafted, which broadens building access to all representatives and their employees as well as those who need to conduct business at the State House.
More broadly, Mariano said leaders “haven’t had discussions about the reopening of the whole building.” Asked about his feelings on lawmakers’ physical attendance in the building, Mariano replied by rattling off a list of legislative accomplishments during the remote work era.
Spilka added that she believes the Legislature has had higher rates of public participation than before the pandemic thanks to livestreamed hearings.
A reporter replied that Spilka’s comments summarized the benefits of working from home and asked if she believes it’s important for more lawmakers to be physically present on Beacon Hill.
“That is quite a leap-taking from what I just said,” she said.
Reopening the State House, Spilka said, “is a very different situation.”
“Members can come in at this point,” she said. “It’s up to what they feel comfortable (with). I know that we will be phasing in more reopenings, but that is why we have the House reopening committee working, the Senate reopening committee working. Now that our vaccination policy is in effect and it has worked so well, we are in the process of planning a fuller reopening.”
Baker said he believes the Legislature’s model has “worked pretty well” so far after an initial period of inactivity at the beginning of the pandemic, praising lawmakers for the work they did in their districts to help constituents during the crisis while noting he “would like us at some point to get back into the building.”
“It’s certainly my hope that at some point, this place will bustle again because I think it’s important that it bustles,” Baker said. “But I don’t think you should understate or underestimate the roles and responsibilities and the work that have been done by elected officials, especially legislators, during the course of this pandemic. In a time of severe unknowns, in many cases what people wanted more than anything else out of their legislator was the ability to solve what I would describe as local problems.”
“A lot of that work was actually better done, in my view, by being available in the community than it would have been if they’d been in this building,” he added.