PROVIDENCE — On opening day of the 2021 legislative session, two Republican House members showed up at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium without face masks — even though they had been informed that masks were mandatory because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They ended up being sworn in and voting in a separate room.
Now, House leaders are trying to figure out what to do if the duo refuse to wear face masks when lawmakers come together again later this month.
Amid a surge in the pandemic, both the House and Senate chose to meet outside their State House chambers, convening in spaces that offer better ventilation and more room for social distancing. On Tuesday, the House met at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, across from the State House, while the Senate met at Rhode Island College’s Sapinsley Hall.
Emails obtained by the Globe show that on Dec. 31, K. Joseph Shekarchi, then the House Speaker-elect, sent an email to the 75 House members with details about opening day, saying, “Masks are mandatory for all representatives, participants, staffers, and the limited guests.”
Representative Justin K. Price, a Richmond Republican, responded by asking, “What is the protocol for members that formally decline the mandatory mask and screening process?”
Representative Robert Quatrocchi, a Scituate Republican, also responded, asking, “Are there no provisions for those of us who may be medically unable to wear masks, both for inauguration and continuing session?”
Shekarchi told them that the Veterans Memorial Auditorium “is very strict about mask-wearing” but would allow legislators to wear face shields as an alternative.
Shekarchi quoted from correspondence from the auditorium managers, who cited the Americans with Disabilities Act guidance on mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic: “A business need not accommodate someone if doing so would impede the business’ ability to safely provide its goods and services,” it said. “Under current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, allowing unmasked members of the public into business establishments creates a health and safety risk.”
Two other House members responded to Price on the group email.
Representative-elect Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung – the Cranston Republican who knocked off then-House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello in November’s elections – wrote: “I get that wearing masks is a personal choice, and one that you need to make for yourself. But some of the other reps here are medically vulnerable, or have close family members that are very vulnerable.”
Fenton-Fung, a physical therapist who works at Rhode Island Hospital, tested positive for COVID-19 in April, and her husband, outgoing Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, just tested positive for the virus on Monday.
“You’re a reasonable person,” Fenton-Fung told Price, “and I would just ask, if not for yourself, that you wear a mask while hanging out with the rest of us so that you can make others feel more secure. This is a really difficult time for everyone, and we’re all at our wits end.”
She concluded the message, saying, “Thanks so much in advance, and Happy New Year to 74 of my partners in crime (metaphorically speaking if any of you leak this to the press).”
Representative Susan Donovan, a Bristol Democrat, also wrote to Price, saying, “There are quite a few of us with pre-existing conditions that put us in the high-risk category. Meaning: We could possibly become gravely ill if we contract the virus. I’m sure that you would not want to put any of your colleagues or their families at risk, so I am respectfully asking that you wear a mask.”
But on Tuesday, both Price and Quattrocchi showed up at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium without face masks or face shields, House spokesman Larry Berman said. They were asked to use a back entrance and to go upstairs to a room with a television so that they could watch the proceedings, he said.
Price and Quattrocchi took the oath of office, with a House staff member witnessing it, Berman said, and when it came time to elect a House Speaker, they were recorded as voting for House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican. (Shekarchi won with 59 votes, while Filippi received 9.)
In a statement, Shekarchi noted the House is not meeting again until Jan. 19. In the meantime, he said, “I will be speaking to the policymakers at the Veterans Auditorium and to Minority Leader Filippi about how to best proceed moving forward. The health and safety of all the members of the House are my paramount concern.”
Shekarchi said he will also contact state Department of Health officials.
Health Department spokesman Joseph Wendelken said, “While the public health benefits of masking to prevent COVID-19 spread are indisputable, Rhode Island law does allow for exemptions to masking requirements in limited circumstances.” For example, he said, people “whose health would be damaged” by masking are not required to mask, and workers don’t have to wear masks if they “can easily, continuously, and measurably maintain 6 feet of distance in a workplace.”
Price and Quattrocchi did not return calls for comment.
Filippi said the House moved to the Veterans Memorial Auditorium so that legislators would have room to maintain social distance, and he said, “You only have to wear a mask when you can’t maintain social distance.”
But some House members did not always maintain social distance during Tuesday’s session, Filippi said. “I wore a mask and maintained social distance, but I can’t say the same for some of my colleagues,” he said. “Everyone was hamming it up and slapping each on the back. I even saw some people hugging.”
Filippi said Price and Quattrocchi had a legal right to be present at the organizational meeting of the House, and he argued that anyone who tried to stop them from exercising that right could have been charged with a felony under the section of law regarding the organization of the General Assembly.
“They could have walked in with a force field of law that would have come down on those who would stop them,” he said. “But no one played that game. We all sat down, and we came up with a reasonable accommodation.”
Filippi emphasized that the Veterans Memorial Auditorium does not have the authority to set policy for the House of Representatives. “The notion that some staff member of the Vets can unilaterally dictate the policy of the House of Representatives is laughable,” he said.
Filippi said his job is to defend the rights of the members of the 10-member Republican caucus. “Whether I agree with those decisions or not, they have rights as representatives,” he said. “We are all reasonable people. No one is trying to be intransigent. We think everything will work out.”
Representative Teresa Tanzi, a South Kingstown Democrat, emphasized that Rhode Island has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, and she said it’s only a matter of time before the new, highly contagious coronavirus variant – which has been identified in Connecticut – makes its way to Rhode Island.
“It is imperative that we wear our masks to help prevent the spread,” she said. “I get checked with a PCR test every time we meet. It’s to protect the other people in the room.”
Tanzi said it is “selfish” and “foolish” for lawmakers to refuse to wear masks when the legislature convenes. If legislators are not wearing masks during Assembly sessions, they are probably not wearing them in other places and therefore could be more likely to be infected, she said.
“I believe in science, and it clearly has shown that face masks reduce the transmission of the virus,” she said. “I want to protect not only myself but my community and my fellow house members. It is a small price to pay to help protect our state.”