New Hampshire Speaker of the House Sherman Packard (R-Londonderry) has rejected Democrats’ demands for a mask mandate to cover members participating in House committee meetings. He is also refusing to allow members to return to conducting official business online, instead insisting that committee meetings be held in person, along with the testimony that is offered.
“The emergency orders have ended,” Packard told NHJournal. “This is how we’ve done business in New Hampshire for 250 years. It’s time to get back to work. We’re not doing remote participation and we’re not doing remote testimony.”
Democrats have made remote sessions and mask mandates a top priority since losing control of the legislature in last November’s election. Under Packard, the House GOP leadership has taken several novel steps to address health and safety concerns, including a less-than-successful “drive-in” House session, before moving the body’s business to the 50,000 square-foot NH Sportsplex in Bedford.
On August 18, House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing (D-Hampton) and Deputy Leader David Cote (D-Nashua) wrote Packard about the upcoming return to committee work, urging him to impose a mask mandate in Legislative Office Building committee rooms and allow members to participate in committee work via the internet.
“The COVID-19 surge that New Hampshire is currently experiencing shows that we cannot safely conduct committee work in the way envisioned a month or two months ago,” Cushing wrote. “As the CDC now recommends universal indoor masking in public places with community transmission at New Hampshire’s current levels, we urge you to require face coverings for in-person attendance at committee meetings.”
Packard refused, but added he is open to reconsidering “if the situation gets tremendously worse.”
About 300 positive COVID tests a day are currently being reported in New Hampshire, less than one-third of January’s 1,000-a-day peak, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. Hospitalizations have risen from single digits two months ago to 125 today, though still about one-third of their January peak.
Based on available data, approximately 99 percent of those hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated. Members of the legislature have had full access to the COVID vaccine since January, and they are free to wear masks if they choose.
“Not having a mask mandate doesn’t mean House members can’t wear masks,” Packard noted. “They are free to make that decision.”
Democrats say being vaccinated and wearing masks isn’t enough. Others should be forced to do the same. Several members have already called for vaccine mandates on all Granite Staters, not just those in the legislature.
The political divide over masks was evident at Wednesday’s meeting of the Special Committee on Redistricting, where many Democratic legislators were in masks while their GOP counterparts were not. Cote, who has cerebral palsy and coronary artery disease, released a statement Wednesday saying Packard’s rules prevented his participation. “Due to the Speaker’s decision to forbid any committee members from participating remotely, I was unable to attend today.
“Contrary to the Speaker’s claims, rules specific to the state of emergency are not required to allow remote participation by members. As long as a quorum of members is present in-person, permitting individuals to participate remotely does not violate House Rules. We have the technology to work safely and used it successfully for six months. The Speaker’s unnecessary intransigence could have the most serious consequences to public health,” Cote wrote.
Asked about the argument that requiring attendance isn’t necessary as long as there is a quorum present, Packard pushed back.
“Is the Democrats’ plan for us to never return to the rules? Let me turn the question around: Is this the way Democrats plan on doing business from now on?”
Packard argued that having the members gathering in person helps build trust and civility. “When you get to know someone, when you sit across from them in meeting after meeting, it builds friendship, it builds trust. You can disagree without being disagreeable.”
This debate may become a moot point. Democrats have filed a lawsuit asking the federal government to use the Americans with Disabilities Act to override the House’s ability to make its own rules and force the leadership to allow remote participation. The Biden administration is siding with New Hampshire Democrats. Oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit are expected early next month.