Almost two years after it closed at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the Massachusetts State House will reopen to the public on Tuesday, Feb. 22, officials announced Monday.
In a statement Monday from Senate president Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano, the leaders said that members of the public will be allowed to enter the State House if they wear masks and show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test taken no more than one day prior to entry.
The plan, announced Monday, did not include details on enforcement and appears to be a compromise between the House and Senate, which by law, have the purview to make decisions about State House operations.
Massachusetts is the last state in the continental United States to keep its capitol closed to the public.
Last week, the Globe reported that there was daylight between Spilka, who wanted to open her chamber to vaccinated and masked members of the public on Feb. 22, and Mariano, who wanted those who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 or unwilling to provide proof of vaccination to have the option of providing a negative test as an alternative.
The decision to allow for the option of a negative test was due, in part, to four members of the House still not having shown proof of vaccination under the chamber’s vaccine mandate, according to Mariano and his office.
But many details of the reopening plan remain in flux. Mariano said legislative leaders are still “negotiating exactly how we will administer the doors” where visitors will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, though he said officials are prepared to deploy court officers who typically handle security in the chambers.
It’s also unclear exactly how a mask mandate will be enforced. “We will remind people to put their masks on,” Spilka said.
Two committees that the House and Senate created to examine reopening the building are also still working out many details, Mariano said.
But the work remaining left a lot of questions unanswered.
Will there need to be added security in the building? “We are talking about the operations aspect,” Spilka said.
Will legislative workers be required to staff each office with the building reopened? Spilka said it’s up to each senator; Mariano said the House intends to staff each one.
Will children under 5, who are not able to be vaccinated yet, be allowed in, given that the building also serves as a tourist destination? “Sure,” Mariano responded.
And what metrics are legislative leaders using to reevaluate the rules? Spilka said “transmission rates,” though she did not specify what they would have to be for officials to drop their mandates. Mariano pointed to the “data everyone else is using.”
“We want to provide an opportunity for people to come in, but we do ask that they respect the folks who are going to be in here working and that they follow the rules,” Mariano said.
“I think what took so long [to reopen] is the fact that this is also a public building and a tourist attraction. It’s on the Freedom Trail,” he added. “We wanted to make sure we know who was coming in here and that the folks that were coming in here weren’t a threat to the folks who are working.”
Asked if they had regrets being the last State House in the continental US to reopen to public visitors, both legislative leaders said they had none.
In Massachusetts, most state buildings and legislative district offices have reopened to offer in-person services, according to Baker’s office. But the State House is only open to accredited journalists, lawmakers, state officials, and staff.
Baker, for his part, said Monday that he, too, wants the State House to reopen, but with different rules.
“I don’t think this building needs a vax mandate,” he said.