Vaccines and Masks On Beacon Hill? Definitely; Masks at Kowloon Restaurant? Well …

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By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

Brad Hill was already at the Kowloon Restaurant in Saugus last Thursday when his former colleagues from the Legislature started to arrive late.

Over the previous couple of hours, House Democrats and Republicans had leveled sharp accusations against one another regarding the new House policy on vaccinations, which requires any lawmaker or staff member who wants to work from the State House to prove they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Only one Republican crossed the aisle to support the policy, and opponents in the debate branded each other as hypocrites for taking the positions they did.

But now some of those same Democrats and Republicans who were on opposite sides of the vote were ready to put the emotions of the afternoon behind them to mingle and celebrate Hill. The venue they chose was the popular Chinese restaurant owned by the family of state Representative Donald Wong, a Saugus Republican.

Hill, also a Republican, had just recently ended a more than 22-year-career in the Massachusetts Legislature to join the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and his farewell party attracted a mix of more than two dozen current and former lawmakers who served with him, according to photos and firsthand accounts.

“We had a very nice time,” said state Representative Paul Donato, a Medford Democrat and assistant vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who insisted that masks were worn except when people were eating and to take a group photo.

But as those photos began to surface on social media, some began to question the optics, if not the public health, of attending a mid-sized gathering indoors at a restaurant after going to the mat for a policy that would require proof of vaccination and universal masking just to enter the House side of the Massachusetts State House.

In addition to the group photo, some of the pictures showed attendees talking casually, not seated, without masks. Saugus does not require masks in public indoor spaces as some other cities and towns, including Boston, have done in response to the rise of the Delta variant.

State Representative Peter Durant (R-Spencer), one of the most vocal critics of the vaccine mandate, had suggested during the debate that one only needed to look at the Facebook pages of some lawmakers advocating for the State House policy to find examples of them in large crowds without a mask.

The presence of state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante (D-Gloucester) at the Kowloon particularly stung Representative Shawn Dooley (R-Norfolk).

“For her to go to the party of one of the people who she accused of not caring if people died, at a huge restaurant, with a packed crowd, without a mask — shows the hypocrisy of it all,” said Dooley, who was not at the party, but had seen the photos.

Dooley had listened to Ferrante tell the House that it could be a matter of life or death for her to know that the people she works with are vaccinated and will be wearing masks. Ferrante is currently undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.

“Yeah, you may not get COVID bad, but if I get COVID it might be a whole hell of a lot worse,” she said during the debate.

Ferrante did not return multiple email messages this week seeking to discuss her decision to attend the Kowloon event, but several people who were there said the Gloucester Democrat largely sat away from the rest of the group and wore a mask.

One of those attendees was state Representative Jim O’Day, of West Boylston. O’Day said he wasn’t sure of everyone’s vaccination status at the party, but said he’s vaccinated and many people, including Ferrante, were wearing masks when they weren’t eating.

“Maybe it was a little silly of us to take our masks off for that photo, but I can tell you in general most people were being pretty mindful of wearing their masks,” O’Day said.

When Wong arrived at his family’s restaurant, he said people were already eating, so they weren’t wearing masks. He said the event was in a room segregated from the rest of the restaurant, and that the tables had been set up to seat groups of four or six with plastic partitions separating the tables.

“Everyone loved Brad Hill and I think a lot of people were there just for him,” Wong said about leaving the emotions of the debate back on Beacon Hill.

Wong said he did not remember anyone bringing up the heated words exchanged just hours earlier, or questioning the use of masks or anyone’s vaccination status.

“I was so mixed up in the celebration for Brad Hill, that was one of the furthest things from my mind,” said Wong, who did recall sitting down at Ferrante’s table at one point to talk with the Democrat. “No one ever came up to me or anyone else and asked if we should have a mask. No one mentioned it.”

Donato said he was under the impression that everyone in attendance was vaccinated, though several other guests said they could not be entirely sure.

Donato said the event was no different from when the ambassador from Nepal visited the State House on Monday and those who met with him wore masks, except when posing briefly for a photo. He said people made sure Ferrante was comfortable with the situation.

“Everybody had a mask on until we took the picture,” Donato said.

A handful of other attendees identified through photos of the event did not return calls and email messages seeking comment. Other guests included Democratic state representatives Patricia Haddad of Somerset and Sean Garballey of Arlington and Republican state representatives Kim Ferguson of Holden, Hannah Kane of Shrewsbury, and Lenny Mirra of Georgetown. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) attended, as did Melrose Mayor Paul Brodeur, former GOP state senator Viriato deMacedo of Plymouth, Salem State University President John Keenan, and former Democratic state representative Kathi Anne Reinstein, who now heads up external affairs for Roca in Chelsea.

The State House remains closed to the public, though the vaccine mandate was billed by House leaders as the first in a series of steps toward reopening the building to the public. Even before the new vaccine policy was adopted in the House, masks were required of lawmakers when they entered the House chamber, and mandate supporters said the close quarters of the chamber and the proximity of their desks to one another made it imperative to know whether other lawmakers were vaccinated.

During the debate, Ferrante said that anyone who voted against the vaccine mandate could no longer say without being hypocritical that they entered public service to “serve the least among us.”

“I understand the reality that everybody has political headaches when anything comes to the floor, but please, please, please to my colleague I’m not even asking you, I’m begging you don’t let your political hangups, your political challenges and your political showmanship become my medical issues,” Ferrante said.

Despite undergoing cancer treatment in Boston, Ferrante has continued to work and over the past several weeks has chaired hearings virtually and attended in-person events in her district with Governor Charlie Baker and others where speakers have worn masks, except when talking into the microphone.

Ferrante did not attend last Thursday’s vaccine debate at the State House in person, choosing to speak remotely to her colleagues, instead.


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