Some Rhode Island House Republicans remained mask-less on the floor of the House of Representatives during the opening legislative day of 2022, defying a request from Speaker Joe Shekarchi that lawmakers remain in an upper gallery if they insist on not wearing a mask.

In a letter to Shekarchi, a copy of which was obtained by The Public’s Radio, House GOP Leader Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham) wrote, “The Minority Caucus has determined that maskless House Members may not be involuntarily relegated to the House Gallery. They have a right to conduct legislative business on the House Floor. No rule of the House can de facto usurp this right. Committees [sic] attendance is afforded the same protections.”

The letter was dated December 27; there has not been a public sign of a change in the GOP's stance since then.

While Shekarchi remained masked while speaking from the rostrum, at least one Democratic representative, William O'Brien of North Providence, and House Clerk Frank McCabe took off their masks while speaking.

With the Omicron variant of COVID spreading quickly in Rhode Island, Shekarchi asked lawmakers who want to go maskless to position themselves during sessions in the gallery overlooking the House chamber. Legislators uncomfortable with being on the House floor have also been offered the opportunity to sit in the gallery, along with an iPad connected to the legislative computer system.

Filippi, however, in his letter to Shekarchi, said, “[T]he remedy for breach of the Speaker’s action on masks (assuming it is valid) is lawful proceedings before the Committee on Conduct, and subsequent referral to the full House. Only then may a member be excluded from the House Floor.”

Asked for comment, House spokesman Larry Berman said, “Speaker Shekarchi has repeatedly urged all members to wear masks on the floor.”

A number of the 15 GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate have shunned mask requests during legislative sessions. Among the exceptions: Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (R-Cranston), who is a healthcare worker.

Some lawmakers privately say they’re concerned about attending in-person sessions due to the threat of Omicron, and they expect some of their peers to take a pass on attending for that reason. House rules do not allow for voting in absentia, while the Senate allows for proxy voting.

For most of the 2021 session, the House met at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium and the Senate at Rhode Island College.

In his letter, Filippi called for the reinstallation of Plexiglass barriers in the House chamber, put in place at a cost of about $165,000 as COVID emerged in the U.S.

The House GOP leader also criticized how the pandemic has affected public access to the Statehouse: “Our 2021 proceedings cannot be prologue to those in 2022. The public has been effectively shut out of the committee process — including their being summarily disconnected by a computer after testifying for longer than the allotted 75 seconds on a package of 20 bills, all affecting constitutional rights.”

Note: Tiis story has been updated; The date when Filippi's letter was sent was added after initial publication of this story.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. Sign up here for his weekly RI politics and media newsletter.