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Senate continues limited COVID emergency in Connecticut

Sen. Cathy Osten, left, talks to Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly. Osten was the only Democrat to oppose the extension of Lamont's emergency orders.
Sen. Cathy Osten, left, talks to Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly. Osten was the only Democrat to oppose the extension of Lamont's emergency orders.

The Senate gave final approval Monday to two measures that continue limited emergency powers to manage COVID-19, while shifting from Gov. Ned Lamont to educators the decision whether to require masks in schools.

House Bill 5047 extends 11 of the hundreds of executive orders issued by Lamont under the extraordinary emergency powers he asserted on March 10, 2020 to confront a COVID outbreak that quickly spiraled into a pandemic. Most now will expire April 15.

“We are reclaiming the legislature’s authority, because if passed into law and signed by the governor, the governor would not have the authority to amend any of these, to revoke any of these,” said Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.

Lamont’s unilateral authority to temporarily enact or suspend laws expires Tuesday, the final day of the sixth in a series of gubernatorial emergency declarations made with increasing degrees of legislative oversight.

It will be replaced by a legislative emergency declaration passed Monday with the primary goal of preserving access to $30 million in monthly federal pandemic relief that extends benefits to recipients of SNAP, the nutritional aid program.

A resolution declaring the new and limited emergency through June 30 and the House bill extending the executive orders, plus others issued by the commissioner of public health, passed with every Republican in opposition.

The vote for the bill was 21-14, with Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, joining the GOP opposition, and Sen. Mary Daugherty Abrams, D-Meriden, absent. The emergency-declaration resolution passed on a straight party-line vote of 21-13, with Abrams and Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, absent.

Lamont is expected to sign the bill Tuesday. The resolution does not require his signature.

The measures represent a shift in the policies and politics of managing a pandemic nearing the end of its second year, as Lamont joins other Democratic governors in easing remaining mandates, most notably masks in schools and pre-schools.

“Today’s vote is not a decision guided by science. This is an ask of the legislature guided by politics,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “The governor no longer wants to be the one to extend CT’s emergency and his executive orders for a 7th time.”

The governor has said responsibility for continuing a mask mandate in schools will fall to local school boards on Feb. 28, the first day back to school after a vacation week for many districts.

Guidance to the local school boards is forthcoming from the commissioners of education and public health.

Until June 30, the commissioner of education would have the authority to reinstate a statewide school mask mandate in consultation with the commissioner of public health.

In the floor debate Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans framed talking points for the campaigns to come this summer and fall by a governor and state lawmakers seeking reelection.

Republicans renewed their objections about what they see as the legislature delegating its authority.

“That authoritarian power, or COVID emergency power, is intoxicating,” said Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield. “It’s very alluring, to hold on to control because life is a lot easier. You can make laws, you can dictate policy. You don’t have to have disagreement.”

But Democrats said those complaints were outdated: The legislature was asserting control Monday, not deferring to the executive, said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

Looney said the pandemic and the emergency has surged and ebbed.

“But it’s by no means over,” Looney said.

Republicans complained of the lack of metrics measuring whether an emergency persists — and when Democrats believe it should end. Even a limited state of emergency is misleading, they said.

“You are scaring people,” said Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott. “We should be giving them the truth and empower them to make their best choices.”

The latest data published Monday by the Lamont administration showed hospitalizations for COVID falling by 61 over the weekend to 406, less than a quarter of the most recent peak of more than 1,900 last month.

The testing positivity rate was 3.32%, down from the mid-20s in January.

But that precipitous drop came after a stomach-churning rise, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, reminded lawmakers that the emergency seemed over after the first surge in cases, before the delta and omicron variants.

“This was just before delta, and before anyone had even contemplated omicron. Could you imagine if we let the executive orders expire?” Duff said.

Three of the executive orders continued by the House bill dealt with vaccinations, two mandating vaccinations for certain workers and another requiring nursing home visitors to either be vaccinated or tested.

One continues the stay in evictions for non-payment if an application for UniteCt rental assistance is pending.

Another 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.

Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said he saw no legitimate reason to continue bid waivers. Lesser said they have been used sparingly, mainly to obtain rapid tests and masks that were in short supply.

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