New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch died on Wednesday, his office describing it as an “unexpected tragedy”.
A medical examiner has since found the cause of his death to be Covid-19.
Mr Hinch, 71, had been sworn in as leader of the state’s Republican-led legislature only a week ago. This was the start of his seventh two-year term representing the constituents of Merrimack.
The House had flipped from the Democrats to the GOP in November’s election, making Mr Hinch speaker for the second time.
Swearing in of the 400-member House and 24-member Senate took place outdoors at the University of New Hampshire in line with coronavirus pandemic restrictions on indoor events.
However, more than a quarter of House members, mostly Democrats, did not attend after learning that several Republican lawmakers had tested positive for Covid-19 after attending an indoor party caucus on 20 November, at which many went unmasked.
Asked about the caucus meeting, Republican Governor Chris Sununu said: “It was horribly managed.”
He added that there was an open buffet at the gathering, and “a lot” of the attendees did not wear masks nor practice social distancing.
Following the announcement of Mr Hinch’s cause of death, Acting Speaker Sherman Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse issued a joint statement saying that they are “committed to protecting the health and safety of our fellow legislators and staff members who work at the statehouse in Concord”.
The two leaders are no consulting with state health officials to determine if any further steps need to be taken beyond current protocols and contact tracing.
Governor Sununu has ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff in remembrance of Mr Hinch.
“Speaker Hinch was a fierce defender of the New Hampshire Advantage [the state having no income or sales taxes], a close friend, and a respected public servant,” Mr Sununu said in a statement. “His loss will be greatly felt by the people of this state, and I ask Granite Staters to join me in praying for his family during this incredibly difficult time.”
At his swearing in on 2 December Speaker Hinch encouraged lawmakers to see each other as “friends and colleagues”, and not as members of opposing parties, particularly as the state confronts the coronavirus pandemic.
Governor Sununu has pleaded with that state’s residents to take the virus seriously and wear masks to keep the pandemic from worsening.
When he announced a statewide mask mandate in November, another Republican tweeted that he’d attend a meeting without a mask, writing: “Try to stop me.”
Mr Packard, who represents Londonderry, is serving his 15th term in the House, will remain the acting speaker until the full House membership meets on 6 January.
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