Legislating in the time of COVID has been a challenge, to say the least. One of the challenges has been how to have the 400-member N.H. House of Representatives meet safely. The safety issue has two aspects; the safety of the representatives themselves, and the need to prevent representatives from becoming disease vectors carrying COVID back to every corner of the state.
In-person meetings have proved problematic. We met indoors on the UNH ice rink last summer, and outdoors in 40-degree weather in November. On both occasions, the refusal of a significant number of Republicans — estimated at 80-90 in November — to wear masks or maintain social distancing has put the rest of the members and staff at risk. I have attended two in-person meetings since the election: Orientation and Organization Day. I was exposed to COVID at both of them.
Luckily, as one of our last legislative acts of the past Legislature, Democrats voted to ask the N.H. Supreme Court if the Constitution actually requires us to meet in person. The court ruled that it was constitutionally acceptable to determine a quorum remotely, rather than in person. House Republican leadership chose to ignore that ruling when they proceeded with the outdoor Organization Day.
One week later, Speaker Hinch was dead of COVID and several other House members were seriously ill. Where Speaker Hinch contracted the disease is immaterial; the ongoing concern is that all of us who attended that day were exposed to COVID, and could potentially bring it back with us to our home communities. Clearly a better solution was called for.
The current solution? The 400 members of the N.H. House will meet outdoors again. In our cars. In a parking lot. In January. Onward to the 1950s!
We have been told we will listen to the proceedings on our car radios. The details of how we will take vote after vote — some by secret ballot, some by roll call — have not been disclosed to us.
Biological convenience? Portable toilets. ADA compliance? Conveyance by golf cart or some such to the portable toilets. No guidance about how transport is to be summoned.
The cold? Some of my colleagues are prone to asthma, which is aggravated by cold temperatures. Running engines to keep warm emits exhaust fumes, which also elevates the risk of asthma attack.
Some of my colleagues do not drive, and some have severe mobility issues, making the parking lot extremely problematic. Some who do not drive also have compromised immune systems, making an extended stay in a closed vehicle with someone not of their household risky. Those requesting remote accommodation for ADA compliance have, to date, been refused.
Our choice? Accept this aberration as normal, or to refuse to attend, and leave our constituents unrepresented.
No legislator should have to make this choice.
All New Hampshire employers have a duty to provide a reasonably safe and accommodating workplace for their employees. How is it that the New Hampshire House of Representatives can provide less than that to its elected members? (Not to mention its actual employees.) A meeting in our cars in January is not a reasonable solution. I am outraged that the refusal of some members of the House to follow minimal required safety precautions has put the rest of us in this completely untenable situation.
Corporations and universities have been holding large meetings and voting via Zoom webinar and other platforms for months now. The House held committee meetings via Zoom last session, and as recently as the Rules Committee meeting last week. Both caucuses of the House have held meetings and voted successfully remotely.
The N.H. Senate will be meeting remotely. The failure of the House of Representatives to join them is solely a matter of choice made by the current House Republican leadership.
Bring on the popcorn and the poodle skirts. New Hampshire is going to be a laughingstock.