New Hampshire lawmakers meet in hockey arena amid coronavirus

DURHAM, N.H. — The largest state legislative chamber in the nation was back in session on Thursday after being sidelined for nearly three months by the coronavirus pandemic.

But the 400-member New Hampshire House of Representatives was far from home.

Rather than meeting in their historic chamber at the Statehouse in Concord, the lawmakers gathered about an hour away at the hockey arena at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff, center at podium, addresses the N.H. House of Representatives during a session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the coronavirus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff, center at podium, addresses the N.H. House of Representatives during a session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the coronavirus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Due to social distancing restrictions, the state representatives sat 6 feet apart on the floor of the arena – providing plenty of space compared to the side-by-side seating in their chamber in the Statehouse. The lawmakers donned masks and submitted to temperature checks as they arrived at staggered times to help contain the spread of the virus.

It was the first time since renovations during the Civil War that the New Hampshire House had not met at the Statehouse. “The penalty box is not available today,” UNH President James Dean joked as he welcomed the lawmakers to Durham.

Members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of their session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of their session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Lawmakers who declined to wear masks for medical reasons were allowed to sit in separate sections in the stands of the arena. Another section in the stands was set aside for the roughly three dozen lawmakers who refused to wear masks.

Conservative Republican Rep. John Burt of Goffstown called those “the freedom seats.”

Legislatures in other states have also changed the location of their sessions during the coronavirus pandemic — the Arkansas House has been meeting at a university basketball arena, and the Illinois House has met in a convention center six blocks from the Capitol. In Virginia, the House met outside under a large tent for a special session in April, while the Senate met at a nearby museum.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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