New Hampshire Republican state Rep. Dick Hinch wept as he accepted a nomination as speaker of the house at an outdoor swearing-in ceremony with hundreds of his peers, including dozens without masks.
“It is my honor to accept,” he said on Dec. 2 at the University of New Hampshire, his voice trembling as he tried to choke back tears. “I am humbled by your support.”
One week later, Hinch, 71, was found dead in his home. The state’s chief medical examiner found Hinch’s cause of death was covid-19, New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald (R) announced Thursday.
Hinch’s death has left Democratic legislators demanding tests for representatives and their staff who attended last week’s ceremony, and some Republicans castigating their colleagues for not following basic public health guidelines.
At a news conference Thursday, New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu lauded Hinch as a “tireless leader” and described him as a close friend, calling his death a “cautionary tale” about the costs of failing to wear a mask. Sununu lashed out at other Republican legislators for flouting face masks at large gatherings.
“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 state Republicans were even harsher in their condemnation of their colleagues who had opposed health guidelines.
“Those in our caucus who refused to take precautions are responsible for Dick Hinch’s death,” Republican State Rep. William Marsh, a retired doctor, wrote on Twitter.
Hinch’s death comes as New Hampshire grapples with its worst surge since the beginning of the pandemic. In the past week, daily reported cases rose 22 percent and deaths grew 20 percent, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker. COVID-related hospitalizations also increased by 59 percent.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Hinch was at the center of a tense controversy between Republican and Democratic state legislators about a lack of adherence to public health guidelines by the GOP members.
On Nov. 9, Hinch and about 50 New Hampshire GOP representatives were photographed at an indoor gathering to celebrate the election results, in which they gained the majority in the state House. None of them were wearing masks, according to the Concord Monitor.
The Republican lawmakers gathered again on Nov. 20 for an indoor caucus meeting at McIntyre Ski Area. That same day, the governor passed an executive order mandating masks. The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services later determined that at least four state lawmakers contracted the virus at the event.
Sununu condemned the meeting, which had an open buffet and where lawmakers disregarded social distancing guidelines and opted out of wearing masks, calling it “poorly managed.”
The outbreak outraged Democratic members of the state legislature who were furious that Hinch did not promptly inform them.
“This decision puts the lives of all members and staff of the House of Representatives at risk,” said outgoing Democratic House Speaker Steve Shurtleff a day before the swearing-in ceremony, known as Organization Day.
Only 270 representatives from the 400-member House attended the outdoor event on Dec. 2, with most Democrats opting for an alternate virtual swearing-in on Dec. 3 to avoid possible exposure to the virus. Hinch sectioned off an area of the event for about 80 Republican lawmakers who refused to wear masks, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
At the time, Hinch dismissed concerns over the outbreak tied to the ski-resort meeting, contending that the infections were inevitable given that most of the legislators are older and retired.
“We are experiencing higher than usual rates of infections in our state, and the Legislature and its members are not immune from that,” Hinch said in a statement Dec. 1, according to the Monitor. “We are a citizen legislature, and it can be expected that our legislators are at the same risk as the citizens we represent.”
The New Hampshire HHS announced Thursday that it is investigating how Hinch contracted the virus, the Union Leader reported. Lori Shibinette, the HHS commissioner, would not say when or if Hinch was tested for the coronavirus before his death. She also wouldn’t comment on whether he knew he had covid-19 at Organization Day.
In a letter to the governor on Thursday, the New Hampshire Democratic Party criticized Republicans for potentially exposing staffers and colleagues 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.”
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The Washington Post’s Kim Bellware and Katie Shepherd contributed to this report.