Speaker’s death calls into question the refusal by many House Republicans to wear masks 

  • In this Dec. 2, 2020 photo, New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch speaks during an outdoor legislative session at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. Hinch died, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, just a week after he was sworn in as leader of the state's newly Republican-led Legislature. He was 71. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Monitor staff
Published: 12/10/2020 5:08:04 PM

The announcement that New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19 upended state politics Thursday, throwing into question how the state’s 400-member legislative body plans to meet next year, how elected officials and staff might be protected, and why some lawmakers have refused to wear masks as the pandemic has hit its second wave.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate immediately called on Gov. Chris Sununu to provide testing to all State House staff and lawmakers that attended Organization Day, the Dec. 3 in-person event at which members were first sworn in.

Republican legislative leaders pledged they would look at “any additional, specific steps we should take” around COVID-19 protocols in light of the news of Hinch’s death.

And fierce criticism resurfaced Thursday around choices made by Republican representatives in the weeks leading up to the sudden death, many of whom openly refused to wear masks and lobbied against any remote legislative meetings.

Rep. William Marsh, a Republican and opthalmologist, took a stand against members of his own party Thursday.

“Those in our caucus who refused to take precautions are responsible for Dick Hinch’s death,” Marsh said.

At a press conference Thursday, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said that the state is investigating the speaker’s death and conducting contact tracing to determine whether others had been exposed. But she said that the state would not disclose those details unless it determined that there was a public need to know, citing Hinch’s privacy.

On Wednesday, hours after Hinch’s death, the House Speaker’s office announced that a staff member in the office had tested positive for COVID-19 that day.

Shibinette declined to comment on whether Hinch had been tested for COVID-19 ahead of his passing.

Last month, Hinch and top Republican leadership held at least two meetings indoors in a Manchester ski area – first on Nov. 9 to celebrate the election results, and later on Nov. 20.

The Nov. 9 event was photographed by an attendee; none of the roughly 50 representatives shown in the photo were wearing a mask.

The photo showed a number of top representatives gathered around Hinch, including interim-Speaker Sherman Packard and Speaker Pro Tem Kimberley Rice.

The Nov. 20 event resulted in an outbreak that led to four positive COVID-19 cases from participants, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. At the time the outbreak was announced, Hinch and his office said he believed all representatives who had tested positive were isolating and were not likely to show up to the Dec. 3 Organization Day.

But the news, which came out a day before the House was set to meet in person at an outside venue, prompted condemnation from Democrats, who said top Republican leaders had not told them about the positive cases, even though they had met in person and said they had to learn of it from the media.

“We know from past sessions many members of the Republican Caucus do not take COVID-19 seriously,” outgoing Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff said at the time. “We know it is serious and should be treated that way.”

Hinch himself acknowledged there would be infections within the Legislature, which is dominated by older, retired members, mostly men.

“We are experiencing higher than usual rates of infections in our state, and the Legislature and its members are not immune from that,” Hinch said. “We are a citizen legislature, and it can be expected that our legislators are at the same risk as the citizens we represent.”

At the UNH event last week, only 270 of 400 representatives showed up to be sworn in, with most Democrats staying away and opting to be sworn in virtually the following day.

This week, one state representative convened a public meeting indoors on Tuesday, defying concerns from members of the press and public that it would put attendees at risk.

Rep. Mike Sylvia, a Belmont Republican who leads the Belknap County delegation, which makes decisions on county budgets, convened the meeting and initially refused to provide for a remote participation option for attendees, the Laconia Daily Sun reported.

Sylvia did not wear a mask in the indoor meeting, and nor did about half the attendees.

At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu condemned the behavior by Sylvia and other representatives who have chosen not to wear masks. Previously, Sununu had criticized the Republican House caucus meetings as “horribly managed.”

“It’s incredibly, incredibly irresponsible,” Sununu said at the press conference. “The number of individuals out there that want to thwart the rules and the guidance that we’ve put in place for people’s safety for the sake of thwarting them is a disservice not to themselves, but to those that they’re surrounding themselves with, in their ability to transmit this virus, often as we now know very unknowingly.

“Don’t act like a bunch of children, frankly,” Sununu added.

Sununu went on to say that the House and Senate should continue to meet in person only if socially distancing could be maintained.

The shock of Hinch’s death prompted State House leaders to call for action, but it was unclear how the news would affect much of the next year’s business.

On Thursday, shortly after the announcement, Republican Senate President Chuck Morse and interim-Speaker Sherman Packard reiterated their condolences for Hinch’s passing, and said that they were working with the State House’s Administrative Office and DHHS to come up with additional protocols, if necessary.

“We are deeply saddened that the pandemic that spares no one afflicted our friend and colleague,” the lawmakers said.

But Democrats demanded broader action, calling for widespread testing among anyone who works or operates in the State House.

“Like many essential workers across the state, State House staff have risked their health and lives to ensure that the operations of state government have continued throughout the pandemic,” House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing and Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy said in a statement.

A spokesman for the governor, Ben Vihstadt, said Thursday that DHHS had been in touch with Senate and House leadership and had offered resources for staff and lawmakers that included testing. 

Left up in the air: how the House plans to meet next month, for both voting sessions and committee work.

Presently the plan is to convene indoors at the Hamel Recreation Center at the University of New Hampshire, which would allow for six feet of social distancing. But Democrats have objected to in-person meetings in recent weeks, and have called for House business to be carried out virtually.

With Hinch’s sudden passing, the House Republican caucus has an additional unenviable task: picking a new House Speaker nominee that can unite the party and earn quick approval.

Exactly how that will happen is not fully clear. The House will hold its official election for Speaker on Jan. 6, “Convening Day,” the office announced Thursday afternoon.

That date falls within the 30-day time limit required by New Hampshire statute to select a new Speaker when a vacancy is announced, RSA 14:2-a, a spokesman for the office, Chief of Staff Aaron Goulette, said Thursday.

But when and how the members of the 212-member House Republican Caucus plan to hold their own meeting – generally the more consequential one – has not yet been made public. A call and email to the speaker’s office were not immediately returned Thursday.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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