Statehouse gate (copy)

According to The Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Statehouse appears to be the only state capitol on the continent where the public remains barred from entering.

The Massachusetts Statehouse is home to one of the longest continuously operating democratic lawmaking institutions in North America. This outlier in history is also an outlier in the present — and not in a good way. Beacon Hill now appears to be home to the only state capitol on the continent that is still keeping out the public it ostensibly serves.

To be sure, the novel coronavirus pandemic’s arrival last year brought extraordinary circumstances that demanded some flexibility even in the practice of democracy. The Statehouse’s closure, however, has now stretched beyond 600 days. Massachusetts’ rate of fully vaccinated residents is among the highest in the country; in fact the commonwealth’s percentage of people with at least one shot is higher than any other state. In all those other states, capitols are allowing access to the public again, with the exception of Hawaii, which is closed to the general public but allows access by appointment.

In this regard, Massachusetts stands alone, with the people still barred from the people’s house in the cradle of American democracy. This should not stand. Bay Staters should have reasonable opportunities to address in person the lawmakers we have democratically hired, and those senators and representatives should conduct the public’s business in as open and transparent a manner as possible. That requires opening the Statehouse doors.

Elsewhere across the state, public-facing agencies have reopened their doors and executive branch offices have had most restrictions lifted — not to mention countless teachers, first responders and other public servants who have returned to work. Why should lawmakers be exempt? And why are there not yet solid plans on how and when to reopen? There are certainly reasonable precautions that could be taken instead of maintaining the full withdrawal — masking requirements, capacity limits, requiring proof of vaccination or negative COVID test for entrance. The COVID era has spurred useful adaptations like livestreaming hearings. Legislators, though, should be getting to a “yes, and” model that embraces those new tools while returning to more typical accessibility now that it’s reasonable to do so instead of remaining hermetically sealed from the state’s highest halls of democracy and the constituents they’re supposed to serve.

Our Opinion: House rules sap transparency; democracy demands better

Previously, we have criticized the Legislature’s considerable secrecy and sclerosis, and we are not alone in those critiques.

“There’s a difference between operating safely and not operating at all, and right now we’re not operating at all when it comes to being able to engage with the residents we claim to serve,” state Sen. Diana DiZoglio told The Boston Globe. “The people need access.”

We agree with the Democrat from Methuen, and we hope the entire Berkshire delegation agrees as well with the pressing need to remove these unnecessary obstacles to the legislative branch functioning the way it is meant to. The Massachusetts Legislature must value open democracy and good governance — and that starts with completing and pursuing a plan to swiftly reopen the Statehouse and get back to the people’s business in the appropriate forum.