Second State House Leader Contracts Covid, As Lawmakers and Staff Seek Testing
The coronavirus pandemic continues to rattle the state's political circles, as one of the top-ranking Republicans in the New Hampshire House announced she had tested positive, and lawmakers and State House staff lined up to be tested for the virus in the wake of House Speaker Dick Hinch’s death from COVID-19.
Rep Kimberly Rice, of Hudson, disclosed her condition on Saturday in a Facebook post in which she described feeling horrible and said she was struggling to breathe. She said she welcomed prayers but also expressed confidence she would “beat COVID.”
“This has been one of the toughest weeks I think I’ve ever had,” Rice wrote.
Her post drew well wishes from fellow lawmakers, as well as an offer of help from the state’s top health official, Commissioner Lori Shibinette.
Rice served as the Republican caucus policy director in the most recent House session, and was named Speaker Pro Tem, effectively the No. 3 position in House leadership, by Hinch shortly after he was elected Speaker on Dec. 2.
Rice did not respond to a voicemail or email Saturday afternoon.
Known cases of COVID-19 within the State House are still relatively low, but they have been rising in recent days. State health officials say an indoor gathering of the House Republican caucus in late November led to a handful of infections among lawmakers. Earlier this week, a staffer in the House Speaker’s office tested positive. A week earlier, Gov. Chris Sununu disclosed that one of his staffers had COVID-19.
Hinch’s death on Dec. 9 shocked the State House and upended plans for the coming legislative session, with House members now set to elect a new leader when they next meet, in the first week in January.
The grim news has also stirred criticism of Republican lawmakers who have refused to wear masks at official legislative functions, including last week’s Organization Day, held outdoors at the University of New Hampshire to accommodate public health concerns.
For now, several basic questions about coming legislative business remain unanswered: Will lawmakers hold in-person committee hearings? Will they arrange for remote voting sessions? Or might they settle on a hybrid version that allows lawmakers to participate however they feel safest? The concerns are particularly acute for the 400-member House of Representatives, where the majority of lawmakers are aged 60 or older and thus at greater risk from COVID-19.
Senate President Chuck Morse on Friday said some Senate committees will work mostly remotely through January, but other work will take place in person at the State House. For instance, he said, Senate budget writers will begin reviewing the state’s finances this month via Zoom. But logistics for the official start of the session, typically a day of pomp and ceremony, have not yet been decided.
Morse said senators are required to wear masks in public spaces in the State House but not in their private offices.
"People have to realize they may not believe they need a mask, but it's the person they're coming in contact with that wants them to have a mask on to protect themselves,” he said.
In response to Hinch’s death, State House leaders arranged for testing sites in Concord and Londonderry this weekend, targeting lawmakers, State House staff and their families. Officials say 180 people sought tests at those sites Saturday.
The Concord site drew a steady line of cars through the day, with National Guardsmen helping administer tests. Many lawmakers and staffers getting tested said they had done so in direct response to Hinch’s death.
Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, a Democrat from Concord, waited with her family through a light drizzle at the dedicated State House testing site Saturday afternoon. She said it was her first time seeking a test; she felt it was a necessary precaution after she attended Organization Day, where many Republican lawmakers refused to wear masks.
She said she hoped events of the past few days would refocus the Legislature's attention on the public health risks posed by the pandemic.
“I think we had a really big wake-up call,” McWilliams said. “Losing Speaker Hinch was really shocking and scary and has opened up a lot of people’s eyes to be careful.”
Rebecca Stuart, who works in an administrative support role with the Legislature, also got a COVID-19 test at the drive-through site in Concord Saturday. She said her office has begun working fully remotely since Hinch’s death, which she called “a horrible shock.”
She said she’s looking forward to more uniform mask-wearing and other steps among those lawmakers who previously may have been skeptical of such precautions.
“Hopefully something changes, where it’s not such a big deal to just wear a mask,” Stuart said.