State House, closed nearly 2 years, to reopen next week

Massachusetts state capitol is the last in the country to reopen

THE MASSACHUSETTS STATE HOUSE, closed to the public since March 2020, is going to reopen next Tuesday.

State House leaders said legislative business will see little change initially. Committee hearings will continue to be held virtually and legislative sessions will remain a hybrid mix of lawmakers appearing in person and virtually.

But for the first time in nearly two years members of the public who want to come in and walk around the historic building will be able to do so, as long as they wear a mask and can provide proof of vaccination or the results of a negative COVID test from the day before. Lobbyists and citizen activists will also be able to buttonhole lawmakers if those lawmakers choose to come in in person.

It’s hard to say business on Beacon Hill has ground to a halt during the State House’s closure; indeed, some lawmakers argue COVID and the virtual approach to doing business that it inspired has actually improved the legislative process — allowing people to testify on bills without traveling long distances to do so or waiting in cramped hearing rooms for hours just to get a chance to address lawmakers for a couple minutes.

The reopening of the State House is in many ways a symbolic gesture, a sign lawmakers are finally shedding some of their caution about COVID.  Massachusetts  is the last state in the nation to reopen its capitol to the public.

The State House is under the purview of the Legislature, and House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka have moved very cautiously toward reopening. Gov. Charlie Baker, who also works out of the State House and joined the two legislative leaders for a private discussion on Monday, said he thought the building should have reopened long ago.

“I think this building should be open, yes,” Baker said at a press conference after their meeting. “Every other state building in the Commonwealth is open for business. I think this one should be open, too.”

Baker also disagrees with some of the safeguards Mariano and Spilka are insisting on.

“I don’t think this building needs a vax mandate, but I’m in a different position than my colleagues on that one,” he said. He did not wear a mask at the press conference, while Spilka, Mariano, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito did.

Reporters peppered Spilka and Mariano with detailed questions about how their reopening rules will be enforced, and they sounded a bit unsure about some of the details. Mariano said court officers and State House rangers would check vaccine status at entrances. “We will accept any and all proof of vaccination,” Mariano said, adding that the negative test option is available to those who don’t want to get vaccinated. Spilka said boosters would not be required.

They didn’t seem to be too concerned about enforcing the mask mandate. “We will remind people to put their mask on,” Spilka said. “It’s just like any other work environment.”

The two lawmakers said they didn’t regret overseeing the last State House in the nation to reopen and said their caution was justified.

“This is a public building and it’s a tourist attraction. It’s on the Freedom Trail. We wanted to make sure we knew who was coming in here so the folks coming in wouldn’t be a threat to the people who are working here,” Mariano said. “Our goal is to protect them.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Spilka said she understands the impatience with all the COVID protocols, but said the coronavirus is a very real disease. “I know people, myself included, are tired of COVID and all of the vaccine requirements, the mask requirements. People want to get on with their lives. They’re tired of it. They’re over it for many folks. But COVID is not over with Massachusetts or its residents,” she said.

Spilka said it will be up to each senator to decide whether to bring employees back to the State House offices. “Just like before, it’s up to each senator,” she said. Mariano said he expected all lawmakers and their staffs to return to work at the State House. “Our intention is to have every office staffed,” he said.