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State Legislators Split On Health Safety Measures To Implement During Their Meetings


Across the country, thousands of state lawmakers are gathering for new legislative sessions, but the pandemic and political divisions are making that harder than usual this year. That is the case in New Hampshire, where Republicans are newly in charge. Not even the death of their new House speaker is bringing lawmakers together on how meetings should get underway. Here's Josh Rogers from New Hampshire Public Radio.

JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: GOP House Speaker Dick Hinch's death last month from COVID-19 came after Republicans repeatedly flouted public health guidance to hold indoor, mask-optional gatherings. But coming as it did just a week after Hinch won the speaker's gavel, it still shocked New Hampshire's political world.


CHRIS SUNUNU: Dick Hinch did pass away very unexpectedly yesterday.

ROGERS: Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who waited until November to issue a public mask mandate and who's kept New Hampshire's COVID-19 restrictions the most permissive in the region, called Hinch's death a cautionary lesson.


SUNUNU: As heartbroken as we all are, it really is a warning sign that we are far from over this.

ROGERS: This also far from over is the battle over how the Live Free or Die state should conduct the public's business during a pandemic, particularly as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to spike. And while Republicans now have the political muscle to deliver on campaign promises, friction remains. Activists, some armed, have taken to protesting against COVID-19 restrictions outside Sununu's House.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Chris Sununu, where are you, sir? Come out here, and talk to the people face to face.

ROGERS: The state's highest court ruled last year that New Hampshire's constitution permits the legislature to meet remotely. States like New York and Utah are allowing their members to do that this year. But Republican leaders here say until the House agrees on new rules, it must meet in person. The plan to ensure social distance is to have New Hampshire's 400 state reps meet in a vast parking lot for a drive-in session. Sherman Packard, the Republican expected to win election as New Hampshire's new House speaker at that drive-in meeting, says safety is his top priority.


SHERMAN PACKARD: If I am the speaker, I will make a absolute, 100% commitment that I would do nothing as speaker to endanger any person.

ROGERS: Packard made that assurance during a Zoom meeting where top lawmakers debated legislative rules. But during that same meeting, Republicans, with Packard's support, blocked Democratic efforts to facilitate remote sessions or even to require lawmakers to wear masks should action resume at the Capitol.

Not every lawmaker is likely to run the risk of meeting in person, even from inside a car. Eighty-one-year-old Ken Snow represents the city of Manchester. He and his wife, who has a disability, live in a continuing care facility. No state has a higher percentage of its COVID-19 deaths tied to nursing homes than New Hampshire. Snow says doing his duty as a lawmaker shouldn't require him to endanger his neighbors.


KEN SNOW: I do not want to become the Typhoid Mary that brings back COVID-19 to the more than 100 other residents within a facility where I currently reside.

ROGERS: A noble goal, particularly since the facility where Snow lives has already had 14 deaths caused by the coronavirus.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000 and serves as NHPRâââ