BOSTON (State House News Service) — The State House will remain open amidst the unfolding coronavirus outbreak but life is changing under the Golden Dome in an effort to protect employees and visitors.
In a memo to House members and staff Tuesday night, a top aide to Speaker Robert DeLeo announced that the House is canceling all public events "for the foreseeable future" and DeLeo is creating a working group to evaluate operations, including committee hearing schedules and formal legislative sessions.
DeLeo's staff has had "productive initial conversations" with House counsel and information technology staff "about conducting day-to-day House business virtually, when appropriate," Whitney Ferguson, DeLeo's deputy chief of staff, wrote in the memo.
"Our top priority is the safety of the employees and Members of the House. If you are sick, please stay home," Ferguson wrote. "This is the best way for us to protect each other and succeed in accomplishing our shared goals. Further, the Department of Public Health has assured us that anyone who has been deemed to have had close contact with someone who has COVID-19 will be contacted directly by the local board of health."
The House and Senate have the capacity to livestream sessions, though such streams are currently limited to the formal sessions attended by most members.
Constituent services are a major function for members of the 160-seat House and 40-seat Senate, with lawmakers and their staff spending much of their time responding, by phone or in person, to requests for assistance, information or services.
Committees hold regular public hearings on bills at the State House, gatherings that sometimes draw large groups to express support or opposition to bills.
Citing consultation with the Baker administration and the Senate, Ferguson said "the State House will remain open to the public for the time being" and that meetings in the building with constituents, stakeholders and public officials will be left up to the discretion of representatives.
Representatives who have booked public events in rooms 348, 350 and the House Members Lounge should advise sponsors that those events are "cancelled until April 9, 2020." The use of those spaces will be reevaluated, and representatives should continue to check weekly updates for session plans, the memo advised.
The working group, according to Ferguson's memo, will include House members and senior staff, and group members will work with DeLeo's office, House Counsel James Kennedy, House Clerk Steven James, and information services and human resources officials.
Numerous events planned in the State House this week were canceled as public health officials reported more and more presumptive positive COVID-19 cases.
Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency Tuesday and imposed broad restrictions on travel for many state employees as Massachusetts moved into a new phase of its response to the global viral outbreak. Baker had been in Utah on vacation since Friday night, but opted to return to Massachusetts a couple days early as the situation on the ground worsened and the number of coronavirus cases climbed to 92, up from 41 just a day before.
Seventy of those cases, public officials said, were linked to a leadership meeting of Biogen employees in Boston in late February, but additional cases, including a handful in the Berkshires, had no known origin and are being treated as the first evidence of "community spread."
"There's no question that the efforts to mitigate the spread of this virus will be disruptive," Baker said Tuesday, later adding, "I want to be clear that state government will continue to operate uninterrupted."
Under joint rules, the Legislature has more than four months remaining to complete work on major bills before breaking for campaign season on July 31. The House and Senate usually tackle marathon sessions over several days at the State House in April and May to complete work on annual spending bills.
By Michael P. Norton, State House News Service