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Senate Approves Extension Of Lamont’s Emergency COVID Powers

Mark Pazniokas
Sen. Rob Sampson (R-Wolcott) urges opposition to the governor’s emergency powers before an empty visitors’ gallery. The Capitol remains largely off-limits to the public.

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.

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.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, set a tone followed by 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.”

The governor 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.

A number of Republicans began by expressing their confidence in vaccinations and their own willingness and eagerness to get them.

“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. The state Capitol remains closed to the public and lobbyists, with the exception of the first floor.

Democrats focused on the governor’s policies, calling them limited and reasonable.

Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said his constituents see a prudent protector of public health.

“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,” he said.

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.

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 toward President Joe Biden’s plan to use occupational safety regulations to require COVID-19 vaccinations in many workplaces.

Republicans polled disapproved, 84% to 13%, while Democrats approved 89% to 10%. Unaffiliated voters disapproved, but by a narrower margin, 56% to 44%.

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