Governor: ‘No Going Back To Virtual Meetings’
By Paula Tracy and Thomas P. Caldwell
CONCORD — Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said there is no going back to virtual Executive Council meetings, despite a serious surge in the number of coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations in the Granite State in recent weeks.
Likewise, as the Legislature takes up a number of retained bills this week, House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, has insisted that the sessions can only take place in person.
Late last week, House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing and Deputy Democratic Leader David Cote sent a letter to Packard, urging him to “allow us to continue working safely by implementing a face covering policy (and) using the technology available to us” in light of the rapid spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Cote released this statement as a Special Committee on Redistricting met in-person for a work session:
“I thank the Democratic members of the Special Committee on Redistricting for their strong advocacy in support of maximum transparency and public input at today’s meeting. Due to the Speaker’s decision to forbid any committee members from participating remotely, I was unable to attend today.
“Heretofore, I have remained at home and participated in legislative activity remotely due to my underlying health condition during the pandemic. Over the last month, COVID-19 cases have spiked in New Hampshire.”
Cote pointed to the fact that all 10 Granite State counties are now areas of “high” community transmission, meeting the CDC recommendation for universal masking in public indoor areas.
“Despite the CDC’s recommendation, Republican leaders have eliminated the mask policy in the State House complex. The Speaker’s decision to disallow any remote participation has forced the immunocompromised and people with underlying health conditions including myself to choose between risking our lives and representing our constituents,” Cote said.
He also said that contrary to the Speaker’s claims, rules specific to the state of emergency are not required to allow remote participation by members. “As long as a quorum of members is present in-person, permitting individuals to participate remotely does not violate House Rules. We have the technology to work safely and used it successfully for six months. The Speaker’s unnecessary intransigence could have the most serious consequences to public health,” Cote said.
The Executive Council approves most contracts, confirms the governor’s nominations for judges and department heads, and offers five elected councilors the opportunity to question department heads on just about anything in their realm, meeting just about every other week.
During the pandemic, those meetings became entirely remote, allowing hundreds of citizens sitting at home to watch or listen on their phones and computers. Staff said the remote access allowed more people to hear what was going on than could fit into Executive Council chambers.
In the spring, the governor, who controls much of what happens at the council table, moved to a hybrid system where people could still be remote while department heads in masks or, in some cases, attending by phone could answer questions.
In the early summer months, as COVID-19 cases waned, Sununu pulled the plug on remote access, and the council again became an in-person-only event.
Next Wednesday’s Executive Council meeting will take place at St. Anselm College.
In recent weeks, the state’s COVID-19 case numbers have been steadily rising, prompting the Democratic leaders in the House to call upon Packard to rethink his insistence on in-person meetings. “Requiring all legislators to attend Retained Bill work sessions and executive sessions in-person would place significant risk on those who are immunocompromised,” Cushing and Cote wrote on Aug. 18.
“There is currently no mask policy within the State House complex and no established process for the eligible population to receive the recommended additional vaccine dose.”
On Monday, five new coronavirus-related deaths were reported in the state, with the total number of lives lost standing at 1,403. On Tuesday, the state reported 290 more cases, three more deaths and 113 hospitalizations, which are also are soaring as the Delta variant of the virus is hitting the population. Only 54 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.
Asked by InDepthNH.org whether there might be a shift back to a hybrid meeting for the council, Sununu essentially said no. Instead, he used the new numbers as an argument for people to get vaccinated and said they should trust the vaccines, one of which — the Pfizer vaccine — has received final authorization for use from the Food and Drug Administration. The Pfizer vaccine formerly had only emergency authorization.
The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are still under emergency authorization. Hybrid or remote Executive Council meetings are “not planned right now, because, if you are vaccinated, you can come to the meetings; the vaccine works,” Sununu said. “If we go back down that path again, where everything is remote, we are essentially telling people not to trust the vaccine. They should. It works and you should be able to trust it,” he added.
Sununu said he understood that some people are making the choice not to get the vaccine, and that is their choice. “But we are really back to normal. We are going to be in these ebbs and flows” of COVID-19, maybe for years, he said.
Sununu noted he expects there will be challenges at the health care level and at schools that open soon for in-person learning.
“We know a big surge is likely to come,” he conceded, and cases may rise, but a time for remote Executive Council meetings is over.
The fact that the FDA has given final authorization for the use of the Pfizer vaccine should help to get more people vaccinated and could lead to more businesses requiring their employees to be vaccinated, Sununu said. He noted that schools have a variety of mitigation measures they can tap to ensure that children are healthy and able to continue in class, and he said individual districts should be allowed to act based on their own situations.
Meanwhile, Cushing said, “The conundrum they are putting people in is to not require vaccination or masks, but to require in-person attendance to participate. They cannot have it both ways and claim to protect public safety.
“Those who are immunocompromised or have at-risk family members should not be forced to risk contracting a deadly virus just to do their job as a state representative,” Cushing concluded.