Getting out of the House: Masked legislators meet in arena
DURHAM, N.H. (AP) —
New Hampshire lawmakers donned masks and submitted to temperature checks Thursday for the first session of the 400-member House since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — and its first meeting outside the Statehouse since the Civil War.
To help contain the spread of the virus, members arrived at staggered times for the historic session at the University of New Hampshire Whittemore Center Arena and sat 6 feet away from one another instead of shoulder-to-shoulder as they usually do in Representatives Hall.
The decision to hold the session in an arena most often used for hockey games has sparked plenty of jokes about the UNH fan tradition of throwing a dead fish on the ice after their team scores the first goal as well as other sports-related quips.
“The penalty box is not available today,” UNH President James Dean said in welcoming lawmakers to Durham.
While there were about three dozen bills on the calendar, none came up for a vote. The Republican minority refused to go along with the Democrats’ proposed timeline to extend deadlines for acting on bills. Democrats tried to bring up a handful of individual bills but couldn’t get the two-thirds majority necessary to suspend the rules.
Multiple efforts to introduce new bills also had failed, including a proposal by House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, to allow the Legislature to meet remotely and two bills aimed at addressing racial bias in the state’s law enforcement and judicial systems.
A Republican-backed bill to prevent possible business tax increases from taking effect in January also failed, as did an attempt to terminate portions of the state of emergency declaration Republican Gov. Chris Sununu ordered during the pandemic. The only measure that did pass would relax rules on the selling of take-out craft beer in containers called growlers.
Rep. David Huot, D-Laconia, objected, saying it was inappropriate to take up that bill while refusing to consider other bills of much higher importance.
“I think we should be ashamed of ourselves,” he said.
Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, agreed, in pushing unsuccessfully for a vote on a bill that would expand the role of a state watchdog office on child abuse.
“If you want to make New Hampshire safe for growlers, let me implore you to add protections for New Hampshire children,” said Lucy Weber.
Though he wasn’t confident that much progress would be made Thursday, Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth, said he was hopeful other efforts to get key legislation attached to bills in the Senate instead will succeed.
“I’m grateful to have this experience, and that we were able to put together a session, finally, because three’s so much work we had to leave on the table,” he said.
Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, said she voted against changing the deadlines, in part because she thinks Democrats have failed to communicate with her party.
“I don’t think my constituents want me to vote without knowing what I’m doing,” she said.
Lawmakers were required to wear either face masks or plastic face shields on the floor, though there were separate sections in the stands for those who couldn’t do so for medical reasons, and another section for about three dozen lawmakers who refused. Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, called those “the freedom seats.”
In the afternoon, several lawmakers unsuccessfully challenged the mask requirement, arguing that they already had been put at risk while they ate lunch at their seats. The average age among House members is 63, putting many of them in the age group considered at high risk for severe illness from the virus.
As they day got underway, those entering the arena were asked about their travel, symptoms and contact with anyone who had been sick. Ober said she thinks they also should have been asked whether they attended any of the many protests held in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“If the purpose is to keep people safe, then they should ask the relevant questions,” she said.
The last time the House met outside its usual home was in 1864, when it moved to a nearby courthouse during Statehouse renovations.
Legislatures in other states have also changed the location of their sessions during the coronavirus pandemic — the Arkansas House has been meeting at a university basketball arena, and the Illinois House has met in a convention center six blocks from the Capitol. In Virginia, the House met outside under a large tent for a special session in April, while the Senate met at a nearby museum.
This story has been corrected to show that Rep. Meuse’s comments were made Thursday, not Wednesday.