The Senate Democratic majority gave final approval Tuesday to a resolution extending Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency COVID-19 pandemic powers through Feb. 15, 2022, keeping mask and vaccine mandates in place.
Senate Republicans voted as a bloc against the resolution, saying the extraordinary delegation of legislative powers granted to the governor no longer are warranted, even if most shied from debating specific executive orders.
The vote was 18-15, with three Democratic absences and two Democrats, Sens. Dennis Bradley of Bridgeport and Cathy Osten of Sprague, joining all 13 Republicans in opposition.
Connecticut now is both an outlier and in the mainstream among states with the greatest success in fighting the latest surge in cases: Continuing a state of emergency may be relatively unusual, but the key mandates they allow are not.
School mask mandates like the one imposed by Lamont are the norm in the northeast, covering Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Those same states require vaccinations against COVID-19 in certain professions, typically a consequence of executive orders by governors or public health officials, even where broader emergencies have expired.
Overall, 17 states and the District of Columbia require masks in schools, following the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said Connecticut’s approach is preferable to designating emergency powers to a commissioner or council, as is the case in Massachusetts and some other states.
“I think our system is preferable that we are not, in effect, disguising responsibility,” Looney said. “It is clear, it is transparent, it is accountable that the chief executive exercises those emergency powers.”
Without the vote Tuesday, the emergency declared on March 10, 2020 would have expired Thursday, leaving the first-term Democratic governor’s mask and vaccine mandates unenforceable absent specific legislation.
After passage, the governor signed an order reauthorizing 10 previous orders, including the mask and vaccination mandates, funding to place the homeless in motels instead of shelters, and a requirement that landlords apply to the federally funded UniteCT program for rent relief before evicting a tenant for non-payment. UniteCT already has distributed $99 million to cover back rent and unpaid utility bills and has another $96 million now being readied for payment.
The House voted 80-60 for the resolution Monday, with 10 Democrats joining all Republicans in opposition.
Republicans in the Senate generally focused on the legal ramifications and political precedents of extending the emergency, avoiding attacks on science, medicine and the efficacy of masks and vaccinations voiced in the House. The approach most likely is politically prudent, given that about 80% of residents in Connecticut have been inoculated against COVID-19.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, set a tone followed by most of the nine other Republicans who spoke, taking issue with the process employed by Lamont to address the pandemic.
“We are a government of the people, by the people and for the people. We have three separate but equal branches of government for a reason,” Kelly said. “Our government is not wired for one-person rule.”
Other states are managing the pandemic without the same emergency powers enjoyed by Lamont, he said.
“We are one of only two states in the entire northeast still under these emergency powers. New Jersey is not. New York is not. Massachusetts is not,” Kelly said.
The reality is more complicated. For example, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts left his powers under a civil-preparedness law lapse in June, but a public-health emergency he declared in May remains in effect. New Jersey no longer has a state of emergency, but the governor does retain certain emergency powers.
Lamont received his share of compliments from the GOP for his management of a pandemic that struck hardest in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut in its earliest days.
“This debate today is not primarily a debate about the underlying policy decisions but rather a debate about the rule of law and the checks and balances that are rightfully built into our system,” said Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich.
Fazio, who won a special election in August, was making his first speech.
“We’ve come a long way in this pandemic in the past year and a half. And we are deeply grateful to so many people who have risked so much and worked so hard in order to keep us safe,” he said.
Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said the situation today is dramatically different than when the virus was first detected in Connecticut 18 months ago, when doctors were unsure of how it was transmitted or how to treat it.
“And now we understand the virus. We understand that the virus will continue to mutate as viruses do,” Somers said. “It will become endemic to the world. And we know how to treat it. We know how it’s transmitted. We understand the vulnerabilities, who is susceptible. We have a vaccine, and Connecticut has done an amazing job at getting the majority of the people vaccinated.”
Others were sharper in their rhetoric.
“Bottom line, there is no emergency happening in the state of Connecticut right now,” said Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott. “If the governor wants to do something good and constructive, I suggest that he works to ensure that all Connecticut residents receive the unbiased truth about what is really happening and what risks truly exist.”
But Sampson was among the Republicans expressing their confidence in vaccinations, if opposed to a mandate for their use.
“Let me make my position very clear: Vaccines are amazing things that have saved countless lives through history. No one can deny that,” Sampson said.
“Health should not be politicized. We should be following the science,” said Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol.
Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said he was vaccinated and urges others to do so.
“Most agree that the vaccination program is and was extremely effective. And that Connecticut ranks among the leaders of people and states that are being protected by the vaccine program that we have,” he said.
Formica said Republicans believe the emergency is over, while the pandemic is not. But it can be managed without the extraordinary powers now enjoyed by the governor, which allow him to temporarily suspend state laws and impose new ones.
“I think it’s time to open this building fully as the state is opened,” Formica said.
The Senate visitors’ gallery was empty, as it has been since March 2020. By order of Democratic legislative leaders, the state Capitol remains closed to the public and lobbyists, with the exception of the first floor. The House chamber is on the second floor, the Senate on the third.
Democrats focused Tuesday on the governor’s policies, calling them limited and reasonable.
“We have a state where our governor has put science first and has worked to balance the competing interests of public health and also the economic imperative to get folks back to work in a way that has been sensitive to changing and evolving conditions on the ground,” said Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said the governor’s executive orders are essential to protect children too young to be vaccinated.
“We need to continue to treat this pandemic with the seriousness it deserves and the severity it warrants,” Duff said.
The two Democrats who voted with Republicans said they did so based on process, not opposition to any specific executive order. Bradley called the continued emergency “an abomination” at odds with constitutional principles of separation of power.
Some Republicans took issue with the governor’s vaccine mandate on educators, health-care workers and state employees, while most took care not to second-guess the overall wisdom of vaccinations.
The partisan split mirrors the findings of a recent Quinnipiac Poll of national attitudes towards mask mandates and President Joe Biden’s plan to use occupational safety regulations to require COVID-19 vaccinations in many workplaces.
Ninety-three percent of Democrats and 68% of unaffiliated voters support requiring students and staff to wear masks in schools, while nearly 70% of Republicans were opposed. Regarding Biden’s vaccination mandate, Democrats approved, 89% to 10%, while the Republican numbers were nearly opposite, with 13% in favor and 84% opposed.
Another stark difference was that the majority of Republicans saw getting the vaccine as a question of personal freedom, while Democrats say it was a matter of public health.
“This is the concept I think that has been missing in so much of our debate,” Looney said in his closing remarks, “the concept of responsibility to others, the concept of a broad duty to the community beyond self.”