Connecticut’s management of a COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed 10,000 lives and made masks a polarizing accessory in schools would loosen under new rules approved Thursday by the House of Representatives.
The House approved a resolution that would declare a limited state of emergency protecting the state’s ability to continue qualifying for federal pandemic relief while letting Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency powers expire next week.
It also passed a bill that would extend by two months 10 executive orders issued by Lamont under sweeping emergency powers he assumed in March 2020, initially with bipartisan approval and, more recently, over sharp GOP objections.
An 11th order requiring that nursing home visitors be vaccinated or submit to a COVID test would end on March 15. The statewide mandate for masks in schools would end Feb. 28, though local school boards could require them.
Taken together, the actions represent what Democrats say are a winding down of the two-year fight to mitigate infections that surged in March 2020 and again in the winters of 2020-21 and 2021-22.
“This bill establishes a pathway and a timeline for our state to transition from responding to COVID to living with COVID,” said Rep. Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden, who presented the two measures.
Republicans voted as a bloc against the emergency declaration and extension of the executive orders, objecting to them as unnecessary, or in the case of masks in schools, an affront to parental authority.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said the limited emergency declaration to qualify for federal aid, such as extended benefits for the SNAP food program, was what the GOP wanted six months ago.
“But today, we think it sends the wrong message to the public that we’re in a state of emergency. We aren’t, and I think psychologically our state needs to move on and come out of it,” Candelora said.
The political and polarizing nature of masks was evident at the start of the session, when House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, reminded the members that House rules required masks except when addressing the chamber.
At least four Republicans walked out in mute protest.
The resolution declaring a limited state of emergency passed on an 89-56 vote, with three Democrats joining all 53 Republicans in opposition. The bill extending the expiration dates of the 11 executive orders passed, 86-62, with nine Democrats joining the GOP.
The Senate is expected to take up the two measures on Monday.
The state departments of Education and Public Health would have the authority to reinstate a mask mandate in school until June 30, a provision that D’Agostino said was available for a nimble response if needed.
“Our caucus has concerns of continuing the ability of the Department of Public Health to issue mask guidelines through June 30,” Candelora said. “We think that there should be a time certain. We think it should be done at the state level, not left up to local boards of education or municipalities to decide on masks.”
D’Agostino said the public is divided, with some demanding the mask mandate continue and others insisting its expiration is long overdue.
“So what this bill does is a compromise in the great tradition of this chamber,” he said. “It recognizes, in a reasonable and logical way, that whenever possible decisions should be left to local elected officials. But in times of emergency, when speed and statewide action are necessary, that can happen.”
Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, a physician and the father of a school-age child, questioned what circumstances would dictate reinstating a mask mandate on young children.
“The World Health Organization has not recommended masking for children under the age of 5. There’s been very few cases in that group. There has been no major significant illness, hospitalization or death,” Petit said.
A Republican amendment would have stripped school boards of the authority to require masks if parents objected.
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, said most children are wearing cloth masks that are widely seen as ineffective.
“It’s like theater, quite frankly,” Devlin said of the school mask mandate. “This doesn’t do very much, but it makes everybody feel a lot better.”
Devlin said her calls and emails have been overwhelmingly against a mask mandate.
“Our purpose in this body is to represent the voices of the people that we represent,” Devlin said. “And we’ve heard loud and clear. I’ve probably received 2 to 2,000 — 2,000 [saying], ‘Give me my parental rights and make my choices as a parent count,’ versus two that feels the other way.”
The Republican amendment failed, 90-56. Three Democrats, Jennifer Leeper of Fairfield, Stephen Meskers of Greenwich and Michelle Cook of Torrington, voted with the Republicans.
By design, the debate was one-sided. A procession of Republicans rose to offer objections or pose questions.
D’Agostino answered the questions, but otherwise Democrats did not engage in the first nine hours of debate.
At 9:30 p.m., Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the Public Health Committee, rose to urge colleagues to remember how the pandemic seemed all but over when the delta variant fueled a surge.
Steinberg said everyone aches for it to end.
“The good news is it seems, based on all the latest trends, that we are on the cusp of that moment,” Steinberg said. “Yes, we are tired, we are exhausted, we are angry. We think we haven’t been able to do right by our kids. We’re impatient, and we want it to end now.”
But Steinberg said the long debate Thursday was over a relatively brief period of continued vigilance.
“We are on the brink of getting beyond this thing,” he said.
There was little objection to continuing some of the executive orders.
One made regulatory changes easing the approval process for the number of licensed health care workers and hospital beds to treat COVID patients. Another waives competitive bidding for COVID-related goods and services.
Others dealt with masks and vaccinations, such as a requirement that state hospital employees be vaccinated by March 7 and another mandating unvaccinated persons age 2 and older to wear a mask in certain indoor settings where social distancing is not feasible.
But they were bundled into one bill, over the objections of Republicans.
The Lamont administration invited the legislature to let his emergency power lapse and instead impose a limited emergency for the main purpose of preserving federal aid, as well as the 11 executive orders.
The federal aid has averaged $30 million a month, administration officials said.