Protestors demanding a continuation of the religious exemption from school vaccine requirements outside the Capitol in January 2021. Yehyun Kim
Melina Floyd, second from right, leader of PowerUpCt in East Hartford, and Keren Prescott, get pushback from other protesters after shouting “Black Lives Matter.”

Hundreds of protestors gathered Wednesday outside the state Capitol, pressing returning lawmakers to reject mandatory vaccinations and coronavirus-related social and business restrictions.

Demonstrators gathered on the north side — most not wearing masks or maintaining social distance — chanting “freedom” and carrying signs with messages that included “My rights don’t end when your fear begins” and “Let me call the Shots!”

“I’m so sad about our eroding freedom,” said Laurel Wiers, 46, of Ledyard, a mother of three who fears her children will be compelled to be vaccinated against COVID-19 — and put at risk of dangerous side effects. “The cure is worse than the disease.”

Modest fatigue and soreness near the injection area for a day or two after vaccination have been the most commonly reported side effects to date.

Lindsay Schmitt of Hebron, whose two children will enter kindergarten and fourth grade next year, doesn’t want state officials making health decisions for her family.

“I don’t want the government mandating something that has to go into their body that their pediatrician is saying” otherwise, she said. “I feel like this is something to be left up to the parents to decide, for the physicians and doctors to decide, but not for the government to make that mandate.”

Brian Festa, a co-founder of the CT Freedom Alliance — an activist group that has been vocal in its opposition to a proposal to remove the state’s religious exemption from the requirement that children receive certain vaccinations before they can attend school — said members of his organization were “preparing for a fight” this year.

“We are not going down without a fight,” Festa said. “We have a sincere religious objection to vaccinations. We should have the right to object to them based on our religious beliefs.”

The new COVID-19 vaccine is not on the state’s list of mandatory childhood vaccinations, but Festa said he worries that it someday will be included.

“We’re very concerned,” he said. “I do think there is going to be a push for that.”

Under the most recent version of the bill, children who claim the religious exemption would not be forced to receive vaccines, but they would be prohibited from enrolling in school. The legislation introduced last year – which was shelved when the session was suspended amid the pandemic – allowed kids who were already attending school to continue doing so. Only new students would be barred from claiming the religious exemption.

Details of the plan are up for debate again this year. Festa, who has a 9-year-old son with disabilities, said he is concerned about children being pulled out of school.

“It’s going to be horrific for children with disabilities if they kick all these kids out,” he said.

Jennifer Margulis flew in from Oregon to attend Wednesday’s rally.

“I am concerned about excluding children from school, and I wanted to be here to speak against discriminating against children based on their parents’ beliefs,” she said. “I’ve been vaccinated many times and I vaccinated my children. I’m not an anti-vaccine person, but I believe very strongly in freedom. I believe that we have to work together to help our children be healthy, not be divided.”

COVID containment rules and 2020 election results spark frustrations

Kevin Larsen turned to cosplay to vent his frustrations about what he deemed an unnecessary popular obsession with social distancing, mask-wearing and other measures designed to limit coronavirus spread.

Wearing a faux Tyvek-containment suit and a mesh face mask — meaning it did not filter his exhalations — Larsen completed his look with a sign that read: “the new normal.”

Kevin Larsen, 37, of East Hartford, wears a faux-protective suit at Wednesday’s rally to protest what he considers excessive government restrictions on gatherings.
Kevin Larsen, 37, of East Hartford, wears a faux-protective suit at Wednesday’s rally to protest what he considers excessive government restrictions on gatherings.

The goal, the 37-year-old East Hartford resident said, “is to show how ridiculous all of this stuff is. … COVID is highly treatable.”

Larsen said he never wears a face mask in public places. “I tell them I have a medical exemption,” he said, adding that while this isn’t true, he believes mask use interferes with proper breathing. “It’s making your body work harder.”

Susan Hull and her husband Ben drove an hour to the Capitol from their home in Lisbon to participate in the demonstration. 

Susan Hull said all the pandemic’s restrictions on traveling have hurt her travel agency. The patchwork rules on quarantine times and testing that vary by state have made it hard to schedule trips for clients. She said her business is in the red for the first time in a decade.

The Hulls and others also used Wednesday’s rally to protest the handling of the 2020 presidential election. 

Lindsay LeBlanc, who attended with her sister-in-law, Michelle, said she believes Trump will refuse to leave the Oval office when his term ends on Jan. 20, if enough Republican leaders support his claims of election fraud.

“If we weren’t here, we’d be in D.C.,” Lindsay said, referring to the pro-Trump protesters in the nation’s Capitol as Congress meets to certify Democrat Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. 

Tensions rise around counter protests

State Capitol police estimated Wednesday’s protest crowd about 500, and while most demonstrators criticized vaccination mandates, COVID-19 restrictions or the presidential results, a handful came to offer another perspective.

Police intervened at one point when demonstrators from two groups clashed over the Black Lives Matter movement — and when one woman said she had been spit on.

As backers of the president chanted “you work for us” to arriving legislators, the other side countered with “Black lives matter” and “Racism is a public health crisis.”

Police intervened shortly after Keren Prescott told them she had been spit upon by a pro-Trump protester.

“I guess they didn’t like what we had to say,” said Melina Floyd, an activist with Power Up East Hartford, who was nearby.

After an investigation, police arrested Yuliya Gilshteyn for spitting and charged her with breach of peace, according to a press release. Gilshteyn is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 20.

Madison Rouleau, 20, of Glastonbury, a criminal justice major at Seton Hall University, joined a group of friends to rally for police reform and to uphold the 2020 presidential election results.

“I think we need to stand up against Trump when he is trying to maintain his power,” said Rouleau, who carried a sign that read, “Trump is a criminal.”

Staff writers Jenna Carlesso, Kelan Lyons, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Adria Watson contributed to this report.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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