Any lobbyist, tourist or other visitor who is not vaccinated against COVID-19 can, as of Monday, stride through the doors of the Massachusetts State House without being asked to show proof they are immunized against the virus or recently tested negative.
But when it comes to elected lawmakers, a different, older set of rules still applies.
Speaker Ronald Mariano’s office said Monday that the mandate requiring staff and House lawmakers to submit proof of vaccination or seek a reasonable accommodation is still in effect for access to the House chamber, even as access to the State House itself is no longer contingent on COVID-19 vaccination or test status.
On the Senate side, the vaccine mandate dictating how members and staff can access the chamber “remains in place but is currently under review,” a spokesperson for Senate President Karen Spilka said Monday.
The lingering rules mean that lawmakers who remain out of compliance with their branch’s vaccine order are still barred from entering the House or Senate chamber — where unvaccinated visitors can watch proceedings from the gallery — and instead must follow debate and cast votes remotely.
“It makes no scientific or common sense at all,” said Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance who has been a critic of the State House’s lengthy closure. “It seems to me it’s only there in place for political purposes so the speaker and Senate president can count on more votes on what they want to get passed.”
House Democrats muscled through a vaccine order in September requiring representatives and staff to submit proof of full vaccination or receive an exemption in order to work in-person under the Golden Dome.
The Senate implemented a similar policy with an annoucement by Spilka and without the adoption of any special order by the Senate. Unlike their colleagues in the House, Senate leaders last year quickly reported unanimous compliance with their mandate and little pushback.
Mariano’s office said Monday that four unnamed representatives are still not in compliance with the House’s order. It is impossible for observers to know whether those lawmakers are unvaccinated against COVID-19 or are vaccinated but refuse either to submit evidence to the House’s human resources office or to seek an exemption.
Every House employee is in compliance with the mandate, the speaker’s office said.
Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican who spent weeks refusing to comply before acquiescing in January so he could physically attend debate on an amendment he filed, on Monday described the contrast between the current policy for visitors and for lawmakers as “bad optics.”
Still, Durant said he believes the House needs another official vote to open up the chamber to lawmakers who are not in line with the mandate because a 131-28 vote first placed the rule on the books.
“I would hope that the speaker would bring the rules change back up for a vote, because that’s what’s going to be required,” Durant told the News Service. “This was a voted rules change. It should be rescinded and life should return to normal.”
The State House had been closed to the public for more than 700 days before Democrat legislative leaders allowed it to reopen on Feb. 22 with a policy requiring any visitor to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result from the past 24 hours.
Less than two weeks later, legislative leaders pivoted. Mariano and Spilka announced on Friday that the COVID-related entry requirements and a mask mandate inside the building would end Monday, attributing the change to “a steady decline in COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations.”
“While some individuals may choose to continue to wear masks, this will no longer be a requirement but rather an individual’s choice based on their preference and level of risk,” Mariano and Spilka said in a joint statement sent out at 6:06 p.m. on Friday.
At 6:28 p.m. Friday, Mariano’s office shared with the News Service the schedule lawmakers received for the following week, which includes a full formal session planned for Wednesday.
“As a reminder, only Members in compliance with House policy may be physically in the Chamber,” the speaker’s office advised representatives.
Durant said he hopes Wednesday’s formal session features a vote to lift the vaccine mandate on representatives and staff. House leaders have yet to highlight any featured bill or order expected to emerge for Wednesday.
“It’s a simple rules change, and it could be done just like that, in the snap of a finger,” he said.
The House order requires any representatives, staff and court officers to comply with additional requirements outlined by a working group, including social distancing and masks. That working group later said masks would be mandatory in House-controlled spaces to help mitigate any potential spread of the highly infectious virus, a guideline about which the House’s HR office reminded the chamber as recently as Feb. 14.
Mariano and Spilka’s new policy effective Monday dropped any masking requirement for visitors to the State House. Varying approaches to the practice were apparent on the House floor at Monday’s session, where lawmakers and court officers displayed a mix of masked and unmasked faces.
Craney, who said he believes Mariano and Spilka simply need to “issue a press release” to update their mandates, took aim at legislative leaders for the pace with which they altered rules governing access to the State House.
“It was 713 days in the making to put together a reopening plan,” he said. “It only took 13 days for the plan to be canned.”
(Copyright (c) 2022 State House News Service.