State House moves toward reopening, but timeline remains unclear

Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Claudia Chiappa
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – More than 19 months since the beginning of the pandemic, the Massachusetts State House remains closed to its staff and to the public. But things are starting to move inside the famous building and a reopening could be on the horizon.

Last month the House of Representatives voted 131-28 to approve mandatory vaccination for lawmakers and members of staff, who are now required to show proof of vaccination by Nov. 1 if they wish to work from inside the State House.

“We’re trying to get back to work in person as much as possible and I think because of the mandate that was passed you’ll see more and more legislators going back to chambers,” said state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said that vaccine verification is a key step in reopening in a safe way.

“I voted enthusiastically in favor of vaccination verification,” Domb said. “I’m grateful they (the working group) put that forward and I one hundred percent support it.”

The vaccine mandate is part of Phase I of a plan put forward by a House working group, led by Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan, detailing steps to reopen the House to staff and eventually to the public. The mandate does allow for medical and religious exemptions but otherwise requires everyone else to present proof of vaccination by Nov. 1.

“There are many ways in which we fight COVID, and vaccinations is one of those ways,” Sabadosa said. “Much like we do with our schools, we require these things to keep us all safer and we should always be acting in the interest of the common good.”

Lawmakers who do not wish to receive the vaccine would still be allowed to work remotely. The mandate currently only applies to legislators and staff, and not to visitors and other members of the public.

During Phase I of reopening, only “core” employers and officers will be allowed to work from within the House, according to a memo sent by the working group. This includes officers and employers “whose positions are essential to the discharge of House operations.” At this time, masks would still be required in most House-controlled spaces.

“I think they’re being very diligent and thoughtful,” said Domb about the working group. “They’re thinking about protecting the health and safety of people working in the building.”

The vote came after a “bitter debate” according to State House News Service. Republicans in the House almost unanimously voted against the order, with the exception of Rep. Sheila Harrington, R-Groton.

The Senate adopted a similar requirement in August, based on a recommendation of the Senate’s Reopening Working Group. Its deadline to provide proof of vaccination passed last Friday, Oct. 15.

While many workers all over the country adapted to remote work, for lawmakers returning to in-person work is essential, said Sabadosa.

“It’s really critical to be able to connect with all of our colleagues and there’s no better time than when all 160 of us have to be on the floor,” Sabadosa said. “As a legislator, I am looking forward to sitting in the committee room again.”

Some of the features explored during the pandemic, however, might be here to stay. Sabadosa and Domb agreed that allowing constituents to virtually join the hearings has made the process more accessible, especially for people who live outside of Boston.

During in-person sessions, constituents often have to take time off work and travel a significant distance to participate in hearings, which can be time-consuming and expensive. A remote or hybrid option would eliminate these barriers.

“For people in western Massachusetts, that’s often a barrier for them to participate,” Domb said. “There is no question that virtual State House benefits folks who live further away from Boston.”

Despite the recent developments, a concrete timeline and a reopening date have yet to be set.

“The plan is to continue to move in the direction of reopening as much as possible, and to play it by ear,” Sabadosa said. “Now the priority is making sure that the order we passed is enacted and people follow it.”

This article originally appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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