New Hampshire Republicans are harshly condemning their mask-skeptical colleagues after the newly sworn-in speaker of the state House contracted COVID-19 and died.
State Rep. Dick Hinch, 71, was found dead in his home last Wednesday, one week after he was nominated by his colleagues to serve as New Hampshire's speaker of the house, the Washington Post reported. On Thursday, New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald announced that a medical examination had concluded that Hinch's death was caused by COVID-19.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu called Hinch a close friend and "tireless leader," warning that his death should serve as a "cautionary tale" about the risks of refusing to wear a mask.
"For those who are just out there doing the opposite just to make some ridiculous political point, it is horribly wrong," Sununu said. "Please use your heads. Don't act like a bunch of children, frankly."
Other Republicans severely reprimanded their colleagues who have flouted safety and health precautions like mask-wearing.
"Those in our caucus who refused to take precautions are responsible for Dick Hinch's death," state Rep. William Marsh (R), a former doctor, tweeted.
Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate have called on Gov. Sununu to provide testing for all lawmakers and their staff who were in attendance on Organization Day, the Dec. 2 in-person ceremony where new members of the legislature were sworn in. Only 270 representatives of the 400-member state House attended the swearing-in ceremony in person. Most Democrats opted to participate in a video conference ceremony on Dec. 3 where they were sworn-in virtually. At the in-person event, about 80 Republican lawmakers were grouped in an area reserved for those who refused to wear masks.
The Concord Monitor reported that Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said the state is conducting contact tracing to determine who else may have been exposed to the coronavirus by Hinch. To protect the privacy of those involved, the state will not disclose its findings to the public unless it determines there is a need to know.
Following news of Hinch's death Wednesday, a member of the speaker's office staff tested positive for COVID-19.
In recent weeks, Republicans have faced criticism for hosting large indoor gatherings with lax social distancing and mask-wearing protocols.
On Nov. 9, state Republicans held an indoor celebration after winning control of both houses of the state legislature in the 2020 elections and none of 50 representatives who were photographed were wearing masks.
The state Department of Health and Human Services said that after another gathering on Nov. 20, four individuals who attended the event tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, Hinch and his office said that all of those who tested positive were isolating and would not participate in Organization Day on Dec. 2, but Democrats blasted Republicans accusing GOP leaders of neglecting to inform them of the outbreak, saying they learned about it from the media, according to the Concord Monitor.
"We know from past sessions many members of the Republican Caucus do not take COVID-19 seriously," outgoing Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff said at the time. "We know it is serious and should be treated that way."
Following Hinch's death, Democrats sent a letter to the governor Thursday, blasting Republicans for potentially exposing staffers and their colleagues to the coronavirus at the swearing-in ceremony.
"No one, in any job, should have to fear for their health at work," the letter said. "The legislature and the entire state government cannot function without dedicated state employees and it is our duty to protect them and all legislators from undue harm."