Masked legislators met Monday in person to decide COVID rules for House members accessing the Statehouse, and one Northeast Kingdom representative expects she may break the rules.
By a vote of six to zero, the House Committee on Rules determined lawmakers returning to the Statehouse in January need to be vaccinated against COVID or provide negative PCR test results on a weekly basis. A seventh member of the committee, Republican Rep. Anne Donahue, was not present for the meeting - though she was connected through video conference - and could not vote. The committee is composed of three Republicans and four Democrats. None on the committee is from the Northeast Kingdom.
Rep. Vicki Strong, a Republican from Albany, objected to the meeting and its possible outcome on Monday hours before members gathered. She sent a message to the committee members, first expressing disappointment that they decided to convene the meeting the week of Christmas: “This makes it difficult for many to have a voice in that discussion, and I would have liked to be there in person with you today, but am unable to attend,” and second challenging rules they may adopt around vaccine mandates: “While many other State Houses across the country are meeting openly, without restrictions that are discriminatory, and while Vermont is one of the most highly vaccinated states in the country, I find the push for excessive protocols unnecessary.”
In addition to requiring a vaccination or proof of negative PCR test, the rules adopted by the committee also “strongly recommend” all lawmakers and staff, regardless of vaccination status, take rapid at-home tests and only go into the building if they have negative test results. The policy governing members of the public seeking to access the Statehouse is not a mandate but a strong recommendation that they be vaccinated or recently tested.
Rep. Scott Beck, a Republican from St. Johnsbury, is supportive of the rules.
“This approach approved by the House Committee on Rules provides two safe ways for a House member to be allowed in the Statehouse and I support it,” Rep. Beck said in an email. “I will be attending in person.”
There are exemptions for medical and religious reasons, but even with a possible way around the Statehouse access rule, Rep. Strong is against the rules.
“It’s an invasion of my privacy to explain my beliefs; we have freedom to live out our beliefs privately,” she said.
Rep. Strong has had the virus, along with her husband, who needed to be hospitalized for a short time.
“I know it’s real,” Rep Strong said of the virus. “I’m not trying to belittle the threat of the virus or the fears.” But she said it’s the right of the individual to make decisions about how they respond to the virus.
“I wish that we could all honor each other’s space and freedom and go to work,” said Rep. Strong.
She said she’s not sure how things will go with her when the session begins on Jan. 4. The plan at the moment, she said, is to not comply but to go to the Statehouse when it’s time to return. What happens at the door if she fails to provide vaccination proof or a negative test result she said she has no idea.
“I’m not backing down,” she said. “It doesn’t look good to say to a Gold Star mother whose son died for freedom” that you can’t enter the building.
Rep. Jill Krowinski, the chair of the rules committee, said the committee will continue to look at the rules related to COVID because the virus and guidance are always changing.
“We are creating something in an environment that is constantly changing,” she said. Another discussion on the rules is already planned for the week after legislators return.