Protesters outside the Capitol. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Protesters outside the Capitol on Monday. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

A divided House of Representatives voted in special session Monday to extend Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency COVID-19 powers through Feb. 15, a measure that would keep controversial mask and vaccination mandates in place.

Passage came on an 80-60 vote, with 10 Democrats joining a Republican minority that voted as a bloc in opposition. Final approval is expected Tuesday in the Senate.

The immediate impact of the extension would be a continuation of mandates for masks in schools and for state employees and school and health-care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly, beginning Monday.

A feared disruption of school bus service as a result of the vaccination or testing mandate did not materialize, according to the governor’s office and the Connecticut School Transportation Association.

Over four hours in the House, the GOP waged a one-sided argument over the safety and efficacy of masks and vaccines and the necessity of an emergency in a state with relatively few COVID hospitalizations and a high rate of vaccinations.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, mindful of the GOP opposition being tagged as anti-science, said his opposition arose not from doubts about vaccinations but a concern about checks and balances. Others took care to note they were vaccinated.

The debate had a topsy-turvy quality at times, with Republicans saying their opposition was partly due to the Democratic governor’s success in safely reopening the economy, distributing vaccines and driving down the transmission of a virus that can be mitigated but not eliminated.

“There needs to be a definition of what the emergency is,” Candelora said. “Because I feel as if now the emergency is ‘COVID exists, therefore the declaration needs to exist.’ And I would say that democracy is stronger than COVID, and I would say we need a standard to determine why this governor needs a blank check to continue to run government.”

Advocates of a special session on criminal issues talk to a lawmaker on the first floor of the Capitol. The public still is banned from the upper floors. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said Connecticut suffered grievous losses in the first months of the pandemic, when Connecticut, New York and New Jersey had the highest rates of infection and deaths and Lamont ordered widespread closures of businesses.

“Having an emergency declaration at that time was the right thing to do,” Nuccio said, but transmissions, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen as the state successfully rolled out vaccinations. “These numbers we’re seeing right now do not justify an emergency.”

The Capitol remains largely off limits to the public. Only the first floor is open, leaving the public with no access to the House and Senate visitor galleries. Rope lines closed off the stairways, keeping lobbyists and protesters away from lawmakers.

Democrats largely yielded the floor to the GOP until House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, rose at the debate’s conclusion to defend the extension against arguments made in the chamber and outside the Capitol, where dozens of protesters objected to mandates for masks and vaccinations and denounced Lamont as a dictator.

“He has not acted like a tyrant. Nor have we abdicated our responsibility as an equal branch of government to work with the governor to meet the challenges that we’ve faced since March of 2020,” Rojas said. “I’ve grown weary myself of the rhetoric, denying what we all know to be true, denial that we still face the continued threat of disruption to our lives.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said after the vote that he agreed with one of the key GOP talking points: COVID-19 is not going away; the pandemic may end, but the virus itself will be endemic.

“Republicans are right about that. It’s gonna be with us for years to come,” Ritter said. “What is our tolerance level for that?”

With Connecticut’s high vaccination rate and the prospect of the approval of vaccines for children in coming months, Ritter said, the governor is unlikely to seek or receive a further extension of his emergency powers.

“I would say my humble opinion, barring some unforeseen variant, he will not need an extension in February,” Ritter said. “That’s my gut reaction.”

None of the Democrats who voted with the Republicans explained their opposition on the floor. 

A few, such as Reps. Jack Hennessy of Bridgeport and David Michel of Stamford, oppose vaccine mandates. Reps. Robyn Porter of New Haven and Anne Hughes of Easton are progressives who have clashed with Lamont. Reps. Jill Barry of Glastonbury and Pat Boyd of Pomfret are more conservative.

[The House roll call.]

Ritter began the day with an unusually sharp warning: If any lawmaker defied the legislative rules that require wearing masks unless they are addressing the chamber, Democrats would call the question, end the debate and vote on the extension.

The House Republican conservative caucus hosted a public hearing last week, providing a forum for people who doubt the safety of vaccines and oppose the governor’s mandates. Few wore masks, despite the requirement.

“If I find there is continuous, willful, substantial non-compliance of our mask rule in this chamber, I will turn to my majority leader and I will ask him to call the question to end debate,” Ritter said.

Every lawmaker followed the rule Monday.

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, did not wear a mask last week at a conservative caucus hearing. He did on Monday. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, called masks a threat to public health, not a precaution against disease, especially as the mandate applies to children.

She invoked the death of George Floyd, who gasped for breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and she recalled the video Lamont posted in its wake.

“He had a shirt on that said, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Mastrofrancesco said. “Our children can’t breathe.”

Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said complained that most of the Democrats were watching the debate from their offices, where they were not required to wearing masks. Young students do not have that same option, she said.

Rep. Kim Fiorello, R-Greenwich, said the people who testified before the conservative caucus asserted a right to follow their own conscience, their own research, and not be guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of Connecticut or any other government entity.

“We met so many wonderful people. So many people who are doing their own research,” Fiorello said. “Are these people right or wrong? Are they crazy or are they normal? I would submit it is not our legislative job to pass judgment — it is not the government’s job to pass judgment on each of these people.”

Dan Hunt, at right, told fellow protesters to refuse to wear a mask if they enter the Capitol, where masks are required. “That’s the whole reasons why we’re here.” MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Dan Hunt, at right, told fellow protesters to refuse to wear a mask if they enter the Capitol, where masks are required. “That’s the whole reasons why we’re here.” MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.