CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Masks are no longer mandatory at the New Hampshire Statehouse, which remains closed to everyone but lawmakers and staff.
The Republican-led Joint Facilities Committee voted 8-4 along party lines Friday to remove a requirement that masks be worn to prevent spread of the coronavirus in the Statehouse and legislative office building.
The vote comes three weeks after Republican Gov. Chris Sununu lifted a statewide mask mandate, leaving it up to individual communities, businesses and organizations to set their own policies.
Under the new Statehouse policy, legislators and staff can choose to wear masks and to require them for those who enter their personal workspaces, though most spaces are shared with others.
“The policy that’s in place in the state of New Hampshire is not requiring face masks right now. Your individual choice, my individual choice, I think that’s where we’re headed back to,” said Senate President Chuck Morse, adding that he has worked with senators and staff to ensure everyone feels comfortable.
Rep. Karen Ebel, D-New London, opposed the change, citing inadequate ventilation in the legislative office building and the advanced age of many lawmakers. She also expressed concern for staffers, who are in the building daily while lawmakers come and go.
“We know the governor’s emergency order is still in place which indicates that he feels the pandemic is ongoing,” she said. “I think it’s early to removing the mask mandate especially if we’re thinking of letting the public back into the building.”
The 24-member Senate has been meeting remotely this year, while the 400-member House has met outside at the University of New Hampshire, in a parking lot from their cars and at a Bedford sport complex.
Its next several sessions will also be held in Bedford, but “at some point this has to end,” said House Speaker Sherm Packard, who became speaker after Republican Dick Hinch died of Covid-19 in December.
“We have been working for the past six months trying to make these buildings as safe as possible. The bottom line is, a good portion of the population has been vaccinated and is continuing to be vaccinated,” he said. “We have to come back into the chamber. This is the people’s building. It’s not our building.”