When the New Hampshire House of Representatives reconvenes next month, it will do so inside of a college hockey arena, in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
While legislatures around the nation grapple with how to best hold votes and be transparent while also having members and the public at least 6 feet from each other, the predicament is probably harder for the New Hampshire House than anywhere else in the country.
With 400 members, New Hampshire’s lower chamber is the third-largest legislative body in the world, behind only the United Kingdom’s 650-member House of Commons and the 435 members that comprise the US House of Representatives.
Lawmakers in the Granite State haven’t met since a marathon session that lasted into the early morning in mid-March. After surveying potential sites, House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat, decided on the Whittemore Center Arena, at the state-owned University of New Hampshire, as the site for a June 11 session. On the same day, the 24 members of the state Senate will use the cavernous house chamber inside the capitol to conduct their business. The House and Senate still have roughly 100 bills to sort through this session.
"While some legislative activities, including committee and commission meetings, have resumed work remotely, we understand it is important for the Legislature to resume session to complete the work that the people of New Hampshire elected us to do as well as provide important checks and balances to the state government during this crisis,” wrote Shurtleff and Senate President Donna Soucy, both Democrats, in a joint statement.
This will be only the second time the House has met outside of state house in history and the first time since the Civil War when they met at the Merrimack County courthouse.
The decision to relocate to Durham, a 45-minute drive from Concord, the state’s capital, is appropriate, New Hampshire House Republican Leader Dick Hinch said in an interview given all the social distance measure recommended.
Hinch is objecting, however, on a proposal to spend an estimated $200,000 on a voting system that will speed up the legislative process in Durham, which can be used later in Concord for committees in years to come. This would be paid for by recent federal stimulus money given to states to aid with coronavirus recovery.
“For the life of me, I cannot figure out why they would spend this money on voting gizmos instead for homeless, food shelters and the list goes on,” said Hinch.
Temperature checks will be conducted for anyone entering the arena. House members will then be given N95 masks, which they will be required to wear inside of the arena.
State House staff say they will try to replicate the feel of the New Hampshire House chamber, the oldest continually used state house in the nation, inside of the Whittemore Center, a hockey rink used by the UNH Wildcats.
The speaker’s rostrum will be on one side of center ice, with members with their usual seating assignments all 6 feet apart. Press will be assigned to the press box, any members of the public not wanting to watch the live stream at home, will be given a space to witness in person.
No word on who will occupy the penalty box.