Lobbyists and others outside the House on the second floor of the Capitol, open for first time during COVID. The Senate's floor is closed. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The House and Senate Democratic majorities diverged sharply and awkwardly Wednesday on questions of COVID-19 and public access to a state Capitol that has been largely closed for nearly two years.

At the order of House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and with the support of House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, lobbyists and other petitioners once again could make their cases to House members.

The second floor of the Capitol, where the House resides, was open and its hallways lined by lobbyists, representatives of unions and non-profits, and one woman handing out flyers opposed to legalizing assisted suicide.

Lobbyists have a conversation on the second floor of the state capitol. The public had access to the first and second floors. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

“The building functions better when people are there to provide information,” Ritter said. 

The third-floor home of the Senate was closed and its halls museum-quiet, a rule that pairs of blazer-clad security officers enforced from landings at the midpoint of stairways between the floors.

“We are now seeing, in my opinion, an absurdity,” Candelora said. “This process is the people’s business, and we need to go beyond Zooming and allow for the discussion and conversation in person we had in the past.”

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz listens to Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, during the Senate session on Wednesday. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Following the latest guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the House made the wearing of masks optional in the chamber. But with the Senate in disagreement, masks were required in all public spaces outside the chamber.

There was no visible partisan divide on masks in the House on Wednesday. Only a few lawmakers wore them, including one whose immune system is compromised by a kidney transplant.

Upstairs, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said the continued precautions reflect the consensus of the Senate Democratic majority caucus. 

One member tested positive after the opening day of the session on Feb. 9 and another this week, he said.

“Our primary concern is trying to do everything we can to make sure we don’t go off the rails with an outbreak of illness, because we have a very finite amount of time in order to get through the session. We’re three weeks into a 12-week session,” Looney said.

The Senate is not alone in requiring masks: Stores still are free to require them, though there is no statewide mandate and few local ones.  

“I think it’s prudent to wear masks,” Looney said. “We have run into problems in the past when we have underestimated this disease.”

But the differing rules on public access on different floors may be unique.

The public is free to traverse the 1st and 2nd floors, where House leaders, Gov. Ned Lamont, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and the state auditors of public accounts have offices.

Welcome to the Capitol. This sign is at the elevators. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

In the Legislative Office Building, the cafeteria is reopening, providing not only food but a gathering place. Public hearings still are conducted by Zoom, but committee meetings now can be held in person at the discretion of the chairs.

“I agree with what the House did,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “It’s time. The people need to be back in the building. The process needs to open itself up.”

Looney and Ritter held a joint in-person press conference Wednesday on the first floor on their shared support of expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, but they remain at odds on COVID precautions.

Ritter said he and Looney remain on cordial terms, despite the Upstairs, Downstairs dynamic.

“Marty and I have a very strong relationship,” Ritter said.

Lobbyists line the first floor, waiting for lawmakers to arrive at a press conference. 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.