State House vaccine mandates raise questions for lawmakers

Could an unvaccinated legislator be barred from voting?

AS THE MASSACHUSETTS House and Senate – like so many private companies – ponder a return to the office, the Democratic leaders of both bodies say they plan to impose a vaccine mandate on members and staff. Some Republican lawmakers, however, are raising concerns about how exactly a mandate would work.  

The questions are particularly thorny for lawmakers themselves, should they choose not to get vaccinated, since lawmakers are elected and cannot be fired. “Will a legislator who chooses not to get vaccinated be prohibited from voting in the State House for their district?” asked Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, in an email. “Let us all remember that legislators work for and report to the people of their district, not House leadership.” 

House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka, who are Democrats, have both said they will require members and staff to be vaccinated before returning to the State House. But the leaders and their human resource departments are still working out the details of what the policy would look like. Many businesses and public health experts are pushing for vaccine mandates as a way to ensure that everyone working in a space has some protection against COVID-19, so the virus is less likely to spread in the workplace.  

On the House side, Mariano spokesperson Ana Vivas said in a statement, “The House Reopening Working Group is in the process of creating a return-to-work policy, informed by science and public health guidance, and a vaccine requirement and other mitigation efforts will be integral parts of that policy. We’ll continue to work through the legal and logistical challenges that are unique to being a large legislative body.” 

On the Senate side, a Senate working group recently recommended that all Senators and employees be vaccinated by October 15. The Senate is talking about returning to in-person work in a hybrid model, beginning sometime after Labor Day. A Senate official said the Senate is in the process of fully implementing those recommendations, which will include developing protocols for Senators and employees to confirm their vaccination status. 

In an email to senators and staff, Spilka wrote that all Senate employees will have to provide proof of vaccination. The working group’s recommendations say senators and staff will be required to provide proof of vaccination before entering any Senate spaces. There would be medical and religious exemptions that would let unvaccinated employees continue to work remotely. Enforcement mechanisms could include termination of an employee who does not get vaccinated.  

There would be no option to take regular COVID tests instead of a vaccine. “As the Working Group does not believe that public health and safety are adequately protected by periodic or even frequent testing of individuals for the COVID-19 virus, such testing shall not be authorized in lieu of the vaccination requirement,” the working group wrote in its recommendations. Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Stone Creem, who led the group, said the senators spoke to epidemiologists who stressed that testing only catches a moment in time, so it has limited effectiveness in stopping the spread of disease. 

The recommendations do not address what the enforcement mechanism would be for a senator who does not get vaccinated and does not obtain an exemption.  

Creem said the vaccine rules apply to both members and staff. “We certainly wanted to be clear that whatever was appropriate health-wise or what we needed for public safety would apply to senators as well as staff,” she said. But she said it will be up to the Senate’s human resources department to develop the specific rules, including the enforcement mechanism for senators. Human resources would also be responsible for determining eligibility for an exemption. 

While vaccine mandates in public and private settings are becoming increasingly common, and Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, imposed one for executive branch employees, many individuals still oppose the concept. 

On the Senate side, the working group’s recommendations were approved by working group members of both parties, including Republican Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. Don Siriani, a Tarr spokesperson, confirmed that Tarr supports the working group’s recommendations, including the vaccine mandate. Tarr is vaccinated, as are his staff members, and Siriani said Tarr “very much recognizes the health value of vaccinations.” 

But in the House, 11 representatives signed onto a bill sponsored by Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, that would prohibit the state, any public building, private business, or education institution from requiring vaccination as a condition of entry. The cosponsors include nine Republicans and two Democrats – Colleen Garry of Dracut and Jeffrey Turco of Winthrop. 

Durant could not be reached. Co-sponsor Rep. David DeCoste, a Norwell Republican, said he wants to see the specifics of the House policy and how it treats members before commenting. He also wants to know more about who is evaluating requests for medical and religious exemptions, and on what basis. “I would not want that job, to have to evaluate the sincerity of someone’s religious beliefs or evaluate medical considerations,” DeCoste said. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Rep. Tim Whelan, a Brewster Republican, said he opposes a House vaccine mandate because he values personal choice. “I am vaccinated and I recommend that everyone get vaccinated, but I just don’t want to see that choice taken away from folks,” Whelan said. “I think our constitutional rights and our liberties are inherently important.” 

DeCoste and Whelan both said they disagree with fellow Republican Baker’s decision to impose a vaccine mandate on executive branch employees. DeCoste said he has received calls from “several dozen” state employees in his district who are concerned about the mandate. “My fear is that this is going to result in a significant number of individuals either retiring early or going elsewhere to work,” DeCoste said.