The Connecticut legislature looks likely to open its 2022 session next month with an in-person address by the governor before lawmakers begin a hybrid of traditional and remote work in a concession to the improved but lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he expected to hold a limited ceremony in the House chamber to hear remarks from Gov. Ned Lamont on Feb. 9. In some ways, the speech will represent a return to normalcy. Lawmakers were sworn in outdoors last January before watching a pre-recorded address by Lamont from their legislative offices. The subdued ceremony took place on Jan. 6 and was soon eclipsed by the attack on the U.S. Capitol later that afternoon.
This year, as the state continues to enjoy a decline in COVID metrics after a surge driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, Ritter expects to begin the session with a more traditional ceremony. Supreme Court justices and constitutional officers will be invited to attend the speech, he said Thursday.
“It’ll be a little different,” Ritter said. “It’s not going to be packed. In the past there’s photos of 300 people. You won’t see that in the chamber. But you’ll see any member who wants to be in there with their mask on is more than welcome to. My guess is, some legislators will choose not to attend and that’s fine.”
Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, said the legislature had yet to invite the governor to deliver his speech but the administration expects he will address the chamber in person. The shift back to more conventional ceremonies signals progress, he said.
“We’re continuing to see the numbers decline. We know which mitigation measures work,” Reiss said. “It’s also a sign that even though our state’s been completely open for almost a year, it’s another step towards normalcy.”
But while the session will begin with more familiar trappings, the coronavirus will likely impact how lawmakers do business, especially in the first few weeks of the process.
Session rules are set by the majority party leadership in both chambers and Senate Democrats did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. However, in a joint press release Friday, the two caucuses said that committee meetings would be held remotely during the month of February and the policy would be reevaluated at the end of the month.
Public hearings will also be held remotely using Zoom, as they were during last year’s session.
“The building is open … but I think for now it’s probably safer to operate public hearings remotely,” Ritter said Thursday, prior to the joint announcement. “If you have a bill and you have 2,000 people, I don’t know how you manage that safely for those persons, safely for nonpartisan staff. I’m not sure how you can control that.”
A public hearing with 2,000 people is not necessarily an exaggeration. Last February, the Public Health Committee held a remote public hearing on a controversial bill that eliminated an exemption to school vaccine requirements. Almost 2,000 people signed up to testify and the committee eventually ended the hearing when it exceeded 24 hours.
Senate Republicans pointed to that hearing during an outdoor press conference Wednesday, saying the remote process curtailed the public’s ability to show support or opposition for proposed laws by demonstrating at the state Capitol in person.
“That voice is lost in this process and I think it’s time that if we can say as a state that we want to fill the XL Center to root our Huskies on, well I think we can also let the people in their Capitol to get back to the business,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said.
In a Friday press release, Senate President Martin Looney said the remote hearings employed during last session enabled more people to participate in the process.
“”As elected representatives of the people we are always sensitive to the need for transparency and accessibility,” Looney said.
Ritter said legislative leaders would continue to evaluate Connecticut’s COVID situation throughout the session. But he said the state was in a different phase of the pandemic and could not revert back to pre-COVID conventions with the snap of a finger. The legislature would have to learn to live with the virus, he said.
“People should not think that the loosening of restrictions somehow validates their arguments of the last two years — that things like vaccines or masking in some situations don’t work,” Ritter said. “The strident views on all sides will not be helpful for the conversations on how we operate session. It’s going to require finding a middle ground and listening to scientists.”