The House gallery remained closed in 2022, even while theaters and sports venues opened without restriction. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The Connecticut General Assembly will continue its stringent COVID-19 restrictions for at least the first month of the 2022 session, conducting only virtual meetings and hearings and limiting access to the state Capitol.

The question of public access when the session opens Feb. 9, a sensitive and increasingly politically polarizing subject in recent weeks, was resolved Friday with a joint announcement by leaders of the Democratic majorities.

Gov. Ned Lamont will be invited to deliver his State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in the House chamber on opening day, but the House gallery, normally open to the public, will be closed, said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.

Anticipating the decision, Senate Republicans were critical this week, noting that the XL Center on the other side of downtown Hartford is open for business, albeit with a requirement that patrons show proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test.

“If we can say as a state that we want to fill the XL Center to root our Huskies on, well, I think we can also let the people in their Capitol,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said Wednesday.

On Friday, Kelly said he would be comfortable with the same rules as the XL. Opening the Capitol with a requirement for vaccination or testing would improve public access, he said.

“I’m not saying just throw the building open,” he said.

“How are we so much more special that we have to be so safe, where our kids are in school every day?” said Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton. “There’s no reason for us to not be in person.”

Ritter and others said access to the seat of government, as well as the operations of a legislature, are not analogous to sports venues. Admitting only those with proof of vaccination or testing will generate another set of issues, Ritter said.

“You could argue this stuff in a law school class all day, but it’s a little more complicated than the XL Center,” Ritter said.

Ritter and House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said in interviews that their goal is to transition to in-person committee meetings in March, when the committees do the more substantive work of sending bills to the House and Senate for floor votes.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, who has been sharply critical of the limited public access to the legislature, did not object to the prospect of virtual hearings for a limited time.

“I think there’s a practical aspect to this,” Candelora said. “Our goal is to have committee meetings in person. I understand right now, given the pandemic and the spikes, public hearings with 400 people in the building are very difficult to have.”

Connecticut is on the downhill side of a spike in cases that pushed hospitalizations above 1,900 patients and the testing positivity rate to more than 24%. Hospitalizations were at 1,192 on Friday, nearly 600 fewer than a week ago. The daily COVID test positivity rate was 9.73% for the second consecutive day.

One challenge for the legislature is that some hearings and meetings draw people in numbers that could be safely accommodated, while others attract hundreds or more.

“We don’t know what crazy bills committee members are going to raise, the committees are going to raise, particularly the Democrats,” Candelora said. “They could raise a concept that’s going to fill the building.”

A proposal to end religious exemptions to the vaccinations required for children to attend school drew about 2,000 people to a virtual public hearing that lasted 24 hours, long enough for 236 people to testify.

Written testimony also can be submitted.

Democrats said the virtual hearings can provide greater access: Rather than travel to Hartford and wait for hours for the chance to deliver the standard 3 minutes of testimony, they can talk to lawmakers from their offices or homes.

What is lost, said Kelly, is the physical presence of people who might not want to testify but stand with those who do.

“And in a virtual world, there is no place for that,” he said.

Candelora said the virtual hearings make sense now.

“But I think that we need to try to get in person as soon as practicable,” he said. “I don’t believe that we are better off in the virtual world.”

Candelora said his larger concern was that remote legislative work would become ingrained. The quality of legislation adopted last year suffered from the limits on face-to-face talks among lawmakers, as well as with lobbyists and the public.

“There just wasn’t the robust negotiating and dialogue that you have with in-person presence,” Candelora said. “And my concern is that we have legislators that are getting used to working out of their living room, and this push is not because of the COVID but because of the convenience.”

Last year, the legislature allowed remote voting in committee. Floor votes in the House and Senate had to be conducted in the chambers or from lawmakers’ offices in the Capitol or adjacent Legislative Office Building.

Ritter said he agreed with Candelora’s assessment of what was lost last year.

“We’re making rules for the month of February,” he said.

While he was optimistic about in-person committee meetings, he doubted the rules would change for public hearings.

“I would be surprised if we change the public hearings,” Ritter said, noting virtual hearings provided the public a voice. “I do believe strongly that it provides in many ways greater access.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, made a similar argument in a prepared statement.

“The General Assembly’s pandemic response has resulted in more ease of access over the past two years,” Looney said. “As elected representatives of the people, we are always sensitive to the need for transparency and accessibility.”

Whether that accessibility will extend to the third floor of the Capitol, where the Senate meets, was unclear. Only the first floor of the Capitol is open to the public, and there is no consensus among House and Senate leaders on when that restriction will end.

Gov. Lamont has no control over public access to the Capitol — or his ability to address the lawmakers.

“I’m just a guest,” Lamont said. “They have to invite me [to speak], but hopefully they invite me.”

Ritter said they will.

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.