House approves vaccine mandate for members, employees after heated debate
In 131-28 vote, Republicans strongly oppose requirement
AFTER AN UNUSUALLY testy and personal debate on the House floor, representatives on Thursday approved an order mandating vaccines for all House members, staff, and officers.
The vote was 131-28, almost entirely along party lines. It came over the vehement objection of House Republicans, some of whom opposed the vaccine mandate for reasons of personal responsibility, and others who said the order gave too much power to a House reopening working group. Speeches on the bill lasted nearly two hours.
No Democrats voted against the order, and only a single Republican, Rep. Sheila Harrington of Groton, voted for it.
Rep. William Galvin, a Canton Democrat who chairs the House Rules Committee, said vaccines are the most effective weapon against transmission of COVID-19 in a workplace that includes 160 elected members and 450 staff. “Vaccines are essential to fulfill our responsibility to care for our staff, each other and the public, and represent the quickest path to a full and safe reopening,” Galvin said.
Democrats portrayed votes against the policy as a vote against vaccine acceptance. “Your vote against providing vaccination certainty is a vote that tells your friends, your colleagues, and our collective staff you value their health less than your political talking points,” said Rep. Michael Day, a Stoneham Democrat and member of the House Committee on Operations, Facilities and Security.
Several Republicans spoke out against vaccine mandates. Rep. Alyson Sullivan, an Abington Republican, called vaccine passports “draconian” and unnecessary, arguing that social distancing, masking, and reasonable accommodations for the vulnerable could keep the House safe. Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, said people need to take personal responsibility, and there are legitimate reasons someone may hesitate to get vaccinated. He noted that the House does not ban smoking due to the large number of smoking deaths.
But Republicans also said it was more about the process than about vaccinations. Rep. Kimberly Ferguson, a Holden Republican and the one minority-party member of the eight-person House working group, said the order gives too much power to the group by giving it the final say in House rules without another public vote. “What we have before us today, unfortunately, is a vague document with no detailed guidelines, no metrics, no clear parameters,” Ferguson said. “How can we as a body vote on something with such a lack of clarity? How can we vote on policies we haven’t been able to see yet?”
The order charges the House Working Group with setting a date by which all members, officers, contractors, vendors, employees, and interns will have to provide proof of vaccination. There would be exemptions for those with a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief. A member or employee who is not vaccinated would have to participate or work remotely, and would not be allowed into the State House. Members and staff would have to maintain full vaccination status as recommended by the CDC.
Temporary emergency rules allowing for remote participation would be extended indefinitely.
House members and employees would be required to accept “any additional mitigation measures as ordered by the House Working Group,” including wearing face masks, maintaining physical or social distancing, or submitting to coronavirus testing.
Five amendments were consolidated into one amendment, which was adopted on the House floor. The amendment ensures anyone who is not able to come into the State House under the order may participate remotely in informal sessions, as well as formal ones. It says the working group will establish procedures for contact tracing and COVID testing for those in the building. It also states that a member who does not certify that they are vaccinated will lose access to committee or personal staff until they are vaccinated. Someone who does not comply with the order can be cited for a violation of House ethics.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican, said there remain serious questions under the order about how unvaccinated people will be handled, how data about vaccination status will be kept confidential, and about the extent of the mitigation requirements. He questioned, for example, whether someone alone in their office with the window open would be required to wear a mask. “I have a problem as an institution devolving this amount of power and authority to a working group,” Jones said.
The debate, which occurred with some representatives in the chamber and some participating remotely, had an unusually emotional tone to it. Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat, said she is immunocompromised, having undergone treatment for pancreatic cancer that was diagnosed last winter. “I thought our colleagues would join together and unite behind an order that said the protection of the least among us has to be first and has to be in the forefront,” Ferrante said. “I guess in this day and age in the atmosphere of divisiveness that plagues the whole country…it might be too much to ask.”
Ferrante argued that restrictions on personal liberty are justified when one person can harm many others. “Literally and figuratively, my life, in part, rests in your hands,” Ferrante said.But Rep. Michael Soter, a Bellingham Republican, said he too is immunocompromised – which is why he did not come into the State House to join the debate in person. “I know what my limitations are,” Soter said.
Soter said educating about the benefits of vaccines is a better way to go than mandating the shots and firing employees who will not get a vaccine. “That’s wrong,” Soter said.