GOP lawmakers contracted COVID and leaders were slow to tell colleagues 

  • Members of the New Hampshire House get ready to vote on HB 2 at the State House in Concord on Thursday, April 11, 2019.

  • Members of the N.H. House of Representatives are scheduled to meet Wednesday outdoors on a UNH field for Organization Day. In the spring, they met inside the Whittemore Center. AP file

Monitor staff
Published: 12/1/2020 2:58:54 PM

An unspecified number of New Hampshire House Republicans have tested positive for COVID-19 after an indoor caucus, state health officials and legislative leaders said Tuesday, throwing the state political scene into uproar a day ahead of an important meeting.

In a statement Tuesday, House Republican Leader Dick Hinch confirmed that “a very small number of people” at his caucus had tested positive for the coronavirus, without listing numbers.

Democrats were incredulous that Hinch had kept the infection from their party leadership in the hours ahead of a meeting of the full 400-member House and 24-member Senate in Durham on Wednesday, and that they had only found out Tuesday when it was reported by the press.

“We are less than 24 hours from Organization Day and the Republican leadership in the House purposefully neglected to tell the Speaker’s office or their Democratic colleagues of an outbreak within their caucus,” said outgoing House Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff who met with Hinch in Durham on Monday. “This decision puts the lives of all members and staff of the House of Representatives at risk.”

On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that it was investigating “cases” stemming from the Nov. 20 meeting at McIntyre Ski Area, and was conducting contact tracing.

“DHHS is aware of cases among persons who attended the event at McIntyre Ski Area in Manchester and we are conducting contact investigations in order to prevent further spread of the virus,” the spokesman, Jake Leon, said. “If we are unable to identify all close contacts, we will issue a public notification regarding potential community exposures.”

In his statement, Hinch declined to go into detail on which members had been affected or how many, citing privacy concerns.

He also argued that with Legislature dominated by older, retired members, some infections were bound to happen.

“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.”

He said that the House leadership was working with DHHS and contact tracers as the investigation continued.

But Shurtleff and other Democrats expressed fury at the news, stating Tuesday that the House Republicans should not have hosted the caucus event at all and that the lack of communication was irresponsible.

The McIntyre Ski Area event is not the only reported outbreak of COVID-19 among legislators in recent days. Two additional representatives who attended a freshman orientation session for new lawmakers last week have also tested positive for the coronavirus, officials in both parties confirmed.

Those positive cases were reported to the House Republican office by Democratic leadership last week, according to a House Democratic spokesperson.

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

The news of the infections broke a day ahead of “Organization Day,” a constitutionally-required event in which members of the House and Senate meet to elect their leaders, namely the House Speaker and Senate President, as well as the Secretary of State and State Treasurer.

This year’s meeting will be held outside at a sports field at the University of New Hampshire, a late decision made Sunday night by Hinch and Republican Sen. Chuck Morse amid rising COVID-19 cases.

Both Hinch and Morse are expected to be elected the leaders of their respective chambers on Wednesday, and have largely organized the meeting on their own.

In his statement, Hinch said that the outdoor event would continue to go forward, stressing that it would follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and include ample spacing between seats.

“We’ve been working with DHHS throughout the event planning process to ensure that proper precautions would be in place, no matter the circumstances,” Hinch said. “Conditions and spacing will meet or exceed CDC guidelines for safety.”

Hinch tried to tamp down concerns of a continued spread, adding that, “We have no reason to believe that the folks who tested positive will attempt to attend the event.”

All the infected members had told the House clerk that they would not attend, a spokesperson for the House Republican office said.

Still, Shurtleff expressed anger about the handling of the outbreak, charging Hinch and the Republican Party with deliberately omitting the infections even in a meeting Monday.

“We were with Republican leadership just yesterday for Organization Day and the COVID-19 outbreak was not mentioned to anyone,” Shurtleff said. “Shame on Representative Dick Hinch and other members of Republican leadership for putting politics before the lives of those who chose to serve in our volunteer legislature.”

Relations between the House Democratic and Republican leadership have deteriorated in recent months as tensions both before and during the pandemic have caused communication to be strained and sporadic, members of both parties say.

News of the outbreaks – and reaction to them – could complicate plans for assembling the 2021 legislative session, which starts in January. Hinch had previously stated a preference for in-person committee meetings and voting sessions; Democrats have argued for remote voting.

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




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