Steeped in history, the Massachusetts State House stands alone for many reasons among the country’s state capitols: Its iconic dome was constructed with copper from Paul Revere’s foundry. Samuel Adams laid its cornerstone. It holds a 237-year-old fish effigy.
The seat of the state’s executive and legislative branches now has another: The State House appears to be the only state capitol on the continent where the public remains barred from entering.
The pandemic-induced closure has now stretched past 600 days, and legislative leaders in charge of the building say they’re juggling how to safely reopen a living museum where hundreds of people work — most of whom are vaccinated against COVID-19 — but typically receives some 100,000 visitors each year.
Nearly every other state has taken more steps to let people back into the “people’s house” since the onset of COVID-19, according to a Globe review of official statements, news reports, and responses from government officials. And while Hawaii is the only other state whose capitol the Globe found is still closed to the general public, it does allow those with appointments to enter.
The lack of clarity on when the Massachusetts Legislature will reopen its capitol has now stirred complaints about an institution that’s long been criticized for opacity.
“There’s a difference between operating safely and not operating at all, and right now we’re not operating at all when it comes to being able to engage with the residents we claim to serve,” said state Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat who is running for state auditor in next year’s election. “People need access. The people need access.”
Other states have managed to reopen their capitols, including those hard-hit by COVID and with lower vaccination rates than Massachusetts, where 82 percent of people have gotten at least one shot.
New York, buffeted by one of the highest COVID death rates in the country, allowed visitors to return to the State Plaza Complex in Albany five months ago. California loosened restrictions on visitors in June, and had already opened its Sacramento capitol to the public when lawmakers were meeting. New Jersey restarted tours in early September, and beginning next month, will require virtually all visitors to its Trenton capitol to show proof of full vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test.
Officials in Wyoming and Nebraska say they never closed their capitols due to COVID-19.
In Hawaii, where the state Legislature’s website says the capitol remains closed, a spokeswoman for Governor David Ige said the building is open to those who have appointments, and that she expects state officials to work with legislative leaders on a plan to lift restrictions on the public before the next legislative session begins in January.
The setup in Hawaii had raised questions of whether it’s afforded unequal access to elected leaders, who reportedly met with lobbyists and business leaders after legislators initially said the building was off limits to anyone but themselves and their staff.
When the capitol is closed, “the public loses touch with our government, we lose confidence in our government,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. ”We really lose a sense that the government is acting for us.”
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, most state buildings with “public-facing” agencies have reopened to offer in-person services, according to Governor Charlie Baker’s office. Administration officials also said they have not imposed any restrictions on executive branch offices since Baker ended Massachusetts’ state of emergency in June, save for local requirements, such as a mask mandate in communities where a state office is located.
It’s left the State House as both a symbolic and literal outlier. For months, legislative leaders have said they’re discussing how to reopen the centuries-old building since they closed it in March 2020. But a firm timeline remains unclear. House Speaker Ronald Mariano told reporters last week that officials have yet to have discussions about reopening “the whole building.”
“The People’s House welcomes all the people,” the Quincy Democrat said. Because of that, “this is isn’t just a workplace for us. It is a tourist attraction.”
In the interim, the Legislature — one of 10 full-time state legislative bodies in the country — has livestreamed its legislative sessions, where many lawmakers still vote remotely, and allowed public hearings to be conducted virtually. The practice, lawmakers say, has given access to those who otherwise would be unable to travel to Beacon Hill to testify in person, encouraging in some cases even greater participation than before the pandemic.
Lawmakers held hearings over months to field feedback and reaction on their redistricting proposals. The Legislature also held a half-dozen public hearings soliciting feedback on how to spend billions in federal stimulus aid, all virtually.
“People can now participate at the comfort of their home,” said state Representative Kate Hogan, the third-ranking Democrat in the House who is helping lead the chamber’s reopening working group. The House, she said, is expected to “soon” release a policy governing its next phase of reopening, which is expected to allow all employees to return — currently officials said only “core” House employees should be in the building — and people “who have a need to conduct business.”
The building’s 20-month-long closure has nevertheless refueled the debate about access to elected officials. Since March 2020, the opportunity for constituents to confront legislators at their State House offices has disappeared. The State House also is similarly home to other offices beyond legislators and the governor, including that of the state treasurer, state auditor, and secretary of state.
While accredited journalists are allowed entry along with lawmakers, state officials, and staff, regular residents are not. Were they, they’d find a building somewhat frozen in time.
A sign outside state Representative Angelo J. Puppolo’s first-floor office lists the Springfield Democrat as chairman of the House’s committee on technology and intergovernmental affairs — a panel that no longer exists. State Senator Sonia Chang-Dίaz is identified at her office door under a committee she hasn’t led in 11 months. Tucked next to the building’s General Hooker entrance is an office listed as belonging to state Senator Joseph Boncore. He resigned two months ago.
Some advocates say the near total reliance on phone calls or Zoom meetings has handicapped their ability to engage lawmakers. Act on Mass, a nonprofit that’s lobbied lawmakers to make their rules more transparent, said when lawmakers don’t respond to requests for Zoom meetings, it leaves few, if any, other options.
“That’s a pretty unique challenge in this completely online advocacy space,” said Ella McDonald, the group’s spokeswoman.
There are also questions about when to allow even limited tours of the building’s more cavernous ceremonial rooms, as Secretary of State William F. Galvin has advocated for since the summer.
Even now, two or three of the docents who conduct those tours can be found most days camped out in Nurses’ Hall. Galvin’s office has organized tours of the building’s exterior, providing nearly 300 since July. But many times, those who’ve inquired about a free tour ultimately decline once they learn the building isn’t open, said Debra O’Malley, a Galvin spokeswoman.
Both branches of the Legislature, as well as the Baker administration, have instituted some of the country’s strictest vaccine mandates, with which more than 96 percent of legislators and their staff in both chambers and 94 percent of executive branch workers have complied. Just four House lawmakers have refused to prove their vaccination status as of last week.
“Having the give and take, discussion among members, among people and hearing from the public who wants to come in . . . we certainly plan on doing that,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka said. But, she said of the pandemic, “this is a very different situation.”
Arline Isaacson, a political consultant and longtime leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said she respects the Legislature’s caution, even if it’s robbed her and other lobbyists of the casual interactions that prove invaluable on Beacon Hill.
But Isaacson, a fixture in political circles who’s previously made rankings of the most powerful people in Boston, said she’s still found lawmakers responsive to her phone calls, texts, or e-mails.
“I don’t know what I would do,” she said, “if they didn’t know me.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.