BOSTON — The State House may reopen to visitors as soon as February, but access to the people's house could be limited to those who are vaccinated against COVID-19, Senate President Karen Spilka said Monday.
Nearly two years after administration and legislative leaders shuttered the building in response to the public health crisis, Spilka hinted that its doors could soon reopen with a vaccine mandate and mandatory mask-wearing measures in place.
Spilka did not offer major details of how the process could roll out, saying that discussions are ongoing, but her remarks after meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Ronald Mariano are the clearest indication yet of a possible shift on the horizon.
"I'm optimistic that, hopefully next month, it can reopen," Spilka told reporters. "The House working group has been meeting with the Senate working group discussing ways to implement, potentially, a vaccination mandate requiring people to have vaccinations, wearing masks and following State House protocol. We are in the process of working that out."
Another key detail that remains unclear is whether the State House, which before COVID doubled as a tourist destination and as the seat of state government, would reopen to the entire public in one fell swoop or in staggered phases.
The State House has been closed since March 2020, when Baker first declared a state of emergency around COVID-19. Baker lifted that emergency in June 2021 and many public and private gathering places have reopened since, with the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins notably filling up the TD Garden on a regular basis.
Legislative leaders at one point targeted fall 2021 to resume public activity under the golden dome, though at this point, only lawmakers, staffers and other eligible employees can get into the building.
House, Senate and executive branch workers for months have all faced varying forms of a vaccine mandate linked to their in-person work.
Although they appeared alongside Spilka after their weekly meeting, neither Baker nor Mariano spoke Monday about reopening the state capitol.
On Jan. 10, Mariano said a new vaccine verification system launched that day would help lawmakers "deal with the challenge of letting people in off the street." The platform allows Bay Staters to access their vaccination records online and download a QR code to a smartphone proving they are immunized against COVID-19.
"It gives us something that we can encourage people to use and use that to gain admission into this place," Mariano said, later adding, "We continue to move forward. Our vaccination rates are good, but we are still concerned with who's coming in the front door. This is a stop on the Freedom Trail. How do we control some of the potential problems that come from that?"
If the State House imposes a vaccine mandate on visitors, it would join restaurants, fitness centers and entertainment establishments across Boston that are required to limit access to vaccinated patrons under an order from Mayor Michelle Wu. Many other communities, however, have chosen not to adopt such policies.
The omicron variant — and the surge in confirmed cases it brought — prompted some businesses and government agencies to scale back their public footprint. Newly confirmed case counts have been dropping from record highs over the past two weeks, though Massachusetts hospitals continue to grapple with enormous strain.
The Supreme Judicial Court on Monday ordered jury trials to remain paused until Feb. 14, a two-week extension to a policy announced in early January.
Courts remain open for in-person business, though judiciary leaders said they continue to recommend remote proceedings whenever possible.
"While we are encouraged by the trend in COVID-19 cases in the Commonwealth, the additional two week pause on jury trials is necessary to protect the health and safety of all who enter and work in our courthouses," SJC Chief Justice Kimberly Budd said.
"Assuming the number of COVID-19 cases continues to decline as expected, we do not anticipate any further pause beyond February 14. As throughout the pandemic, however, all plans and expectations regarding the resumption of jury trials may be adjusted at any time in the ongoing effort to balance the safety of court users and personnel with the fundamental constitutional right to a trial by jury."