Connecticut lawmakers experienced a steady drumbeat of anger, insults and frustration Tuesday over the prospect of continuing even a limited requirement for children to wear masks in school as a precaution against COVID-19.
An informational hearing conducted over Zoom produced a series of three-minute vignettes — the time allotted witnesses in legislative hearings — illustrating parental fears about what living with COVID and its cautions for nearly two years has done to children.
Struggling to maintain his composure, James Kuczo of Fairfield held up a framed portrait of his son, Kevin, a junior at Fairfield Warde High School who died last February at 17.
“Kevin was suffering from depression and took his own life,” Kuczo said. “Kevin didn’t die of COVID, but he died of COVID. My wife and I believe that lockdowns, remote learning and canceling of activities robbed him of any hope, an aspect that exacerbated his condition.”
Kuczo spoke in the final hour of the six-hour hearing. He was 126th on the list of 369 who signed up to speak.
The hearing was held a day before the opening of the annual session of the General Assembly and two days before the House of Representatives is to vote on a special act keeping in force 11 emergency orders issued by Gov. Ned Lamont.
House members will be asked to vote on a single piece of legislation, leaving them with no ability to pick and choose among the orders. If passed by the House, it will go to a vote Monday by the Senate.
It will include a limited new state of emergency declared by the legislature, a step intended to protect the continued flow of federal pandemic aid that the Lamont administration says comes to about $30 million a month.
“We had a long caucus last night. We are going through the process of vote counting today, but I think that people understand that this is a very difficult position,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.
Josh Geballe, the governor’s chief operating officer, told lawmakers that the administration was optimistic that the worst of the pandemic was over, and the orders Lamont wants to continue are limited and necessary.
Most either ease regulatory burdens or provide relief, he said.
“The number of executive orders has been whittled away very consistently. At the peak, we were over 300 executive orders,” Geballe said. “And as I think everyone is aware at this point, there are only 11 that the governor is recommending and requesting your support to extend for a little bit longer.”
If the measure does not pass, the pandemic orders issued by Lamont would lapse on Feb. 15, the last day of the latest in a series of emergency COVID declarations asserted by the governor and accepted by the legislature since March 2020.
Lamont has proposed lifting the statewide mandate on masks for school children on Feb. 28, the day most students will resume studies after a vacation week. In its place, he would leave school boards with the local option of requiring masks, guided by the Department of Public Health and state Department of Education.
Ritter said his preference would be to keep a statewide mask mandate until the end of March, when the weather begins to warm and cases will be minimal, based on recent trends. But he is comfortable deferring to the expertise of the commissioners of public health and education.
“It is the consistent argument to allow the scientific experts to be the ones in charge of this decision and not politicians who are running for reelection in November,” Ritter said.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said the substitution of a state mandate with a local option does not depoliticize the issue of masks.
“If this goes away, the governor says we’re done on Feb. 28, now it’s going to be a political hot potato in these local districts when they go to make these decisions,” Candelora said.
His preference would be an end to the school mask mandate without a local option.
Most witnesses said they want the masks gone — everywhere and immediately. Many insisted the emergency was over and that every one of Lamont’s orders should disappear.
Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, one of the eight Public Health Committee members designated by leadership to conduct the hearing, called the session “a perfect microcosm of the frustration we’re seeing.”
“We heard a lot of ‘do not continue any of the executive orders.’ However, I think there’s some executive orders that are really important that we look at individually, that we still need to continue,” Somers said.
The orders Lamont wants to keep in place include ones that permit the broader use of telemedicine, that give hospitals the flexibility to add beds, and that address staff shortages of teachers, substitute teachers and health care workers.
Lamont has permitted retired teachers to temporarily return to the classroom without jeopardizing their pensions, and he has eased certain licensing requirements for health workers. The orders he wishes to retain were outlined to legislative leaders in a letter sent on Jan. 21.
But the major focus Tuesday was the impact of masks on the development and mental health of children.
“We were very much taken by the passion and the focus of people on their kids and their mental health,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the co-chair. “Nobody should have any doubt that we legislators heard them.”
Steinberg said the legislature is working on a comprehensive mental health bill.
The basis of objections to the school mask mandate spanned a broad spectrum, ranging from unresolved suspicions about the efficacy and safety of masks to a statistic that is widely accepted: Pediatric COVID fatalities are incredibly rare, less than one-quarter of 1% of cases.
“I would go to Las Vegas every day with those odds,” Kuczo said.
While rare, there have been more than 1,000 cases of COVID deaths in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. More than 900,000 Americans have died of COVID, belying claims that the virus is comparable to the flu.
The vast majority of COVID deaths came in people 65 and older, a demographic in Connecticut that is now highly protected by vaccinations and boosters. Treatment options also are greater than in March 2020, when mask mandates and business closures made more sense, some witnesses said.
Dr. Manisha Juthani, the commissioner of public health, said she sees a path out of the pandemic, but it is not time to strip the administration of its ability to respond quickly to changes.
“One thing that we always have to recognize is that there are unknowns, and we are going to have to live with that a little bit,” she said.
Public health officials, she said, are well aware of the sacrifices that have been required of adults and children.
“We all are tired and exhausted and probably mad at some level,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we have really come together as a state and taken care of each other, and really what we’re mad at is the virus. The virus has disrupted our way of life. It’s really not what any of our actions have been.”
Somers said later she thought Juthani’s comment was incisive. But it only angered Erica Garbey, a mother of two from Fairfield.
“We are not mad at this virus,” she said during the hearing. “We are mad at our leaders.”