By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – New Hampshire’s State House is once again open to the public after what was its longest closure in more than 200 years.
While the 400-member House of Representatives will meet at the Bedford Sportsplex Thursday as they have this year due to COVID-19, the 24-member state Senate will convene at 10 a.m. as well but in Representatives Hall to vote on compromise measures.
But the “people’s house” is expected to see many members of the public visit Thursday as opponents to the biennial budget plan file in to make their concerns known.
Protests are expected.
Both the House and Senate will continue with live streaming access for at least this last expected meeting of the season, but future decisions on whether to continue with the popular remote access will be determined by the Senate President and Speaker of the House.
To find links to watch and listen go to http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/.
All of the more than 100 State House staff workers will fully return to work on Monday, June 28 after being away from their desks for more than a year.
“We closed to the public on March 13th, 2020, and we were closed approximately 314 days which excludes holidays and weekends,” said Terence R. Pfaff, chief operating officer for the General Court of New Hampshire.
While many returned to work more than a week ago on June 14, Pfaff said the workers were all given two weeks to make the transition after the announcement, allowing them time to line up child care and make other necessary arrangements to return to the office.
He said this is not the first time the State House was closed, but it was definitely the longest.
Pfaff said it closed due to a heatwave early in the last century.
Last Wednesday marked the first time members of the public were allowed to attend the Governor and Executive Council meeting in the council chambers.
No masks were required and few if any were worn in the packed gallery.
Pfaff said the State House is using CDC guidelines on COVID-19, which change from time to time.
Right now, the CDC has recommended the following for those who have been vaccinated:
“Those who are vaccinated can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”
For now, the CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people should continue to get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
For those who are not vaccinated, the CDC urges this population to wear masks when they cannot maintain a consistent distance of six feet or more from others, particularly in enclosed spaces.
The unvaccinated should practice frequent hand hygiene and get tested if experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms such as fever.
Pfaff said State House staff stayed on duty throughout the closure and worked remotely.
The only folks in the building were a limited staff in the governor’s office and at the Secretary of State’s office during the closure, with security details also at their stations, he said.
No one was laid off due to COVID-19, Pfaff said, and everyone adapted to working remotely.
“Many construction projects were placed on hold at the beginning of the pandemic due to workforce stability and sourcing of materials issues. Some have now been reinitiated,” he said.
While the Legislative Office Building is open, there is a lot of construction outside the front doors, making the access to the building through a tunnel that connects the State House and the LOB. The public can access the tunnel by entering the basement State House entrance off Park Street.
The State House visitors center has been busy with members of the public coming in to see the Hall of Flags and tour the marble hallways to look at the many portraits of statesmen throughout state history.
Margaret Waterhouse, public information administrator for the State House, said she was surprised by the number of people who came on June 14, the first day that the doors opened to the public.
She said it seemed like there was some pent-up interest in seeing the building after such a long period of closure.
She stood in the visitors center and was photographed next to a painting done by her grandmother, Rita Jewett, who painted the State House for her.
Waterhouse said she decided to bring it in and have it available to visitors to view.
Virginia Drew, who heads up the visitors center, said she is already booking visitor tours for the fall, with a large contingent being fourth grade students from across the state who come annually to see their State House as part of their civics curriculum.
“It’s going to be busy,” she assured.