Ask House Republicans about COVID-19 safety at the upcoming House sessions at the Sportsplex in Bedford, they’ll tell you that, thanks to extreme measures leadership has put in place, it’s safer than going to the grocery store or getting a haircut. The more partisan GOPers will remind you it’s safer than being in a crowd of political protesters over the summer, and it’s certainly more safe than attending sessions led by then-Speaker Steve Shurtleff when Democrats controlled the House last fall.
But despite the extreme safety measures being taken this week, many state reps reportedly won’t be in attendance at House Session Wednesday and Thursday. Several House Democrats, led by Renny Cushing of Hampton, sued the Republican Speaker in an attempt to force him to allow remote participation for members with health conditions.
A federal judge, Landya McCafferty, shot the lawsuit down Monday.
This week’s session days will be as safe as possible according to House Speaker Sherm Packard (R-Londonderry). Packard’s office released a five-page document outlining public health and emergency response protocols for the session.
Democrats and Republicans will enter on separate ends of the building, with a third entrance dedicated to the press and members of the public. Members will all receive hand sanitizer, additional facemasks, and a biohazard disposal bag. They’ll receive their boxed lunch at check-in to minimize the need for members to move about the facility.
Members who refuse to wear masks, either due to health issues or as a public statement, will have a separate restroom dedicated to them.
“Overall, this session is designed to have minimal touchpoint surfaces and designed for the Members to primarily remain in their seats,” the House document states, highlighting the enhanced social distancing allowed in the 50,000 plus square foot facility. “Seats will be spaced at least 10-12 feet apart providing ample spacing to maintain physical distancing.”
Members of the press and public are required to wear masks if in attendance.
These measures go far beyond any CDC recommendations to provide for a safe environment, but many Democrats still insist they will not attend – and others are angry.
“The thoughtlessness, arrogance, and stupidity of allowing this situation to unfold in the middle of a pandemic brings shame upon our legislature and the Office of the Speaker,” Rep. David Meuse wrote on Twitter. The Portsmouth Democrat, though, did not have similar criticism of Democrat Speaker Steve Shurtleff or the House session held last summer inside the Whittemore Center, despite a lack of “Zoom” attendance accommodations.
Last June, only 25 Democrats were absent for the Whittemore Center session day. On Convening Day this January, 53 were listed as excused absences.
Meanwhile, the average daily infections in New Hampshire have dropped by nearly two-thirds since early January.
“This case exposed the callous indifference of @NHHouseGOP [NH House Republicans] toward most vulnerable members during the COVID-19 crisis that has taken the lives of a half a million Americans. As we teach our children, just b/c you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” the New Hampshire Democrats tweeted following Monday’s court ruling.
With the measures implemented for the first two-day session of the year, it’s hard to imagine what precautions the GOP Speaker isn’t taking. Large garage doors on each end of the building will be left open, the HVAC system will continuously suck fresh air into the venue, and members are all but prohibited from even getting near each other. Even if members were infected and present, the precautions above and beyond CDC guidelines suggest House Session would not become a “super spreader” event.
Republicans hold a thin 13-vote majority if all 398 current members attend. House Democrats are, therefore, doing the GOP a favor by staying home, strengthening their hand. Republican members tell NHJournal they are as anxious to attend as Democrats appear to be to stay home.
One member told NHJournal he tested positive earlier this month but has been cleared by the Department of Health and Human Services “just in time to attend.”
“I’m happy that my family’s quarantine ended just in time to attend safely,” the member said. Had he not been cleared by DHHS, there isn’t much anyone could do — the Speaker can’t keep a member out of the body, even if they are infectious.