Until the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the New Hampshire House of Representatives had met outside of the State House’s Representatives Hall only once – during the Civil War.
The current 394 House members will meet and conduct business at the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Whittemore Center on June 11. The Senate will also historically meet outside of their own chambers, in Representatives Hall, which seats 400 people.
House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff wrote in the weekly House Calendar about the plan. “We understand for many of you that coming to a House session in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic can be frightening. Please know we will be taking all available precautions for your safety.” He noted that House members will have their temperature taken when they enter and will be given a surgical mask to wear while inside the Whittemore Center. Additionally, Shurtleff advised House members to wear soft-soled shoes due to the potentially slippery parts of the floor in the Whittemore Center, and said that firearms are not permitted on campus.
“Collaborative work is ongoing between the State House staff and UNH to ready the arena for this historical event. The Whittemore Center arena’s design makes it a safe venue,” said UNH Chief of Police Paul Dean in an email. “We will follow all safety protocols in accordance with the state’s COVID-19 universal guidance.”
Rep. Judith Spang, of Strafford 6 district, was pleased with the decision to meet at the Whittemore Center. “I think it’s wonderful. I’m very proud of the New Hampshire House, that they have overcome what seemed to be an insoluble problem – of getting a place where 400 people could get together, respecting social distancing – I just didn’t think it was going to be possible… And of course, that my very own University of New Hampshire was able to solve the problem, makes me feel even prouder.”
Rep. Marjorie Smith, of Strafford 6 district, was also enthusiastic about meeting at UNH. When asked about whether the plan had been generally agreed upon, or if it had been more partisan, Smith noted that she could not generally answer that since she had been in isolation in Durham since March 13. Because of this, she said she has not had many opportunities to have informal conversations with other House members. “From the conversations that I have had, and from what I have been able to read, that I think there is generally a very positive response because all of the members of the House, or the overwhelming majority of the members of the House, have been really looking forward to when we would be able to meet together and continue to work on the people’s business,” she said.
“This session is really going to be a high point of how we’ve addressed the problems that have come from the virus,” said Smith.
The House last met in mid-March and will use the Whittemore Center for one day. Dean said the space will stay set-up until July 1, should there be a need for additional meetings.