Some post-pandemic normalcy is returning to Beacon Hill. A year ago, “you could put your mask over your eyes, cross Beacon Street, and not get hit by a car,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. Now there’s traffic of all sorts — including lobbyists who “wander the perimeter” of State House grounds, Galvin reports.
So far, those wandering lobbyists, along with their special interests, can’t get inside — which may not be so terrible. But neither can anyone else. Weeks after pandemic-related restrictions were lifted by Governor Charlie Baker, the building remains closed to the public. Galvin wants to at least open the large halls on the second floor to tourists. But so far, there’s no game plan or even enthusiasm to do that, as legislative leaders work on developing “a comprehensive and nuanced reopening plan with the goal of returning employees and the public safely to the State House in the fall,” according to a recent statement issued by Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano.
That makes Massachusetts the only New England state that has not reopened its State House or locked in a date to so so, the Globe reports. And remember, the state of emergency connected to the pandemic ended here on June 15. More than 60 percent of the population in Massachusetts is fully vaccinated, and reported COVID-19 cases have been steadily decreasing.
In fact, the vaccination issue seems to be at the heart of the holdup about reopening the building. “We are actively doing due diligence on constitutional and legal questions about requiring vaccinations for members and the public. The staff issue is separate and distinct,” said a spokesperson for Mariano. In other words: Who can be required to be vaccinated — and how would Baker react to such a requirement? So far, he has resisted the idea of mandatory vaccinations for public employees.
The governor’s true feelings about reopening the building — where the office from which he has been working is located — are hard to decipher from his public statements. At a press conference in June, Baker said, “I think the biggest challenge we have with reopening the State House is it’s very hard to have rules in this building around how people congregate, how they gather, whether they’re vaccinated, whether they’re not. It’s really like a public space, it’s like being outside in Boston Common, except it’s not outside.” He added: “We talked to the Legislature about this, and I’m hoping at some point we’ll be able to put some policies together that will satisfy the concern about indoor versus outdoor and at the same time keep people safe.”
Asked for an update on the governor’s thinking, a spokesman for Baker declined to comment.
Of course, reopening the building to several hundred employees, plus tourists and others, raises legitimate post-pandemic safety concerns. But from schools and theaters to businesses and sports venues, everyone is grappling with the same concerns and either opening up or coming up with a definite schedule to do so. The State House reopening date remains squishy, at best. A complete reopening will not happen before the start of October, and even that time period is fluid. “The hope would be that we would have people in the building before then, and by Oct. 1 we should be able to give a pretty accurate prediction on when we would reopen the building,” Mariano told the State House News Service, which reports that over the past 15 months, the majority of elected officials have participated remotely in hearings, sessions, and votes.
Galvin, who works out of the State House and also has staff at 1 Ashburton Place, said he confronted the same range of safety concerns during the pandemic and still kept his office open. There were times, he said, “We had to close and clean everything. We had people who tested positive and we had to rotate people from other sections. I’m not going to say we didn’t have issues. We did. But our situation evolved.” He said he surveyed his staff on the question of vaccination, and “we segregate those people” who are not vaccinated. “We worked it through,” he said.
Exterior State House building tours are starting up. Meanwhile, Galvin said he believes the large public areas on the second floor, which encompass Doric Hall, Nurses Hall, the Hall of Flags, and the Great Hall, can be safely opened to tourists if numbers are limited and participants who are not vaccinated are asked to wear masks. That’s a good idea — and would at least be a start to opening a public space to the public.
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