State House Reopening Plans Still Up in The Air

BOSTON (State House News Service) — Massachusetts officials plan to lift all COVID-19 business and capacity restrictions by Aug. 1, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday, but plans for when residents, employees and lobbyists can return to the people's house remain unclear.

Legislative leaders and administration officials closed the State House to the public last year and since then, the once busy halls and hearing rooms have largely been silent save for days when the House or Senate are in formal sessions. In a statement to the News Service following Baker's announcements, House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka said the building will remain closed for the time being.

"The Senate and House engage in frequent discussions about the steps needed to safely re-open the State House to staff and the public. Those conversations continue, but the State House will remain closed for now," they said, repeating a statement they issued in February in response to questions about a State House reopening timeline.

The state plans to relax outdoor mask mandates that have been in place for nearly a year starting Friday to only require face coverings outdoors when social distancing is not possible.

Starting May 10, large venues like stadiums, arenas, and ballparks can increase capacity limits from 12 to 25 percent and amusement parks, theme parks, and water parks can operate at 50 percent capacity after submitting a safety plan to the Department of Public Health.

Indoor gathering limits are scheduled to increase to 200 starting May 29 and will be fully rescinded starting Aug 1. All of the changes and reopenings, Baker stressed Tuesday, are subject to public health and vaccination data.

As for Boston, Mayor Kim Janey said the city will generally lag the state's reopening timeline by about three weeks. She told reporters Tuesday the additional time will be used to vaccinate vulnerable residents, accommodate dense neighborhoods, and support complex business districts.

"We will take the right measures at the right time to protect our people and promote our businesses," she said.

The State House is a unique building in Boston: it's an office space for lawmakers and staffers, a tourism attraction for visitors, a place where legislative agents and interest groups lobby lawmakers, and an event venue for protests, advocacy functions, and ceremonies. In pre-pandemic times, anyone could visit the building after making their way through a security checkpoint and tours under the Golden Dome were a normal sight.

While it mainly serves as the seat of operations for the Legislature and home base for Gov. Charlie Baker and other constitutional officers, the building's different functions make it different from a traditional office building. That makes decision-making around opening the building different from the choices employers across the state are contemplating as they weigh remote work, hybrid models, and bringing employees back to offices.

A spokesperson for Baker's office referred questions to legislative leaders.

The State House closed to the public on the evening of March 16, 2020 as COVID-19 cases were surging and public health measures were first going into place to protect residents. Senate President Karen Spilka said at the time that the building would remain closed "through the duration of the emergency."

Asked about a timeline for ending the state of emergency at a press conference Tuesday, Baker said data like vaccination rates, hospitalization numbers, and COVID-19 case counts will drive the decision-making process.

"Obviously, we pay a lot of attention to the data that I just discussed when it comes to making decisions and making calls about what we do as an administration within the framework of that emergency order," he said. "And that's obviously one of the things that we will continue to review on a pretty regular basis based on what the data tells us with respect to where we are."

Legislative sessions have continued during the pandemic to be run out of the House and Senate chambers inside the State House, but lawmakers have been encouraged to participate remotely to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Several virus cases among State House employees and workers have been confirmed during the pandemic.

At a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce forum in March, Mariano said the fall may offer some hope for reopening the State House.

"The hope is as we progress through the summer that maybe by the fall we can begin to open this building and start to have some hearings and get people in to testify and make their points," he said.

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Written by Chris Van Buskirk/SHNS

(Photo: Mario Jarjour/WBZ NewsRadio)

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