A panel of lawmakers tentatively planned to hold an informational hearing Tuesday on the governor’s soon-to-expire pandemic orders before an expected vote in the House of Representatives Thursday to codify them.
The legislature must take action before Feb. 15 to avoid a lapse in several ongoing policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s the expiration date of Gov. Ned Lamont’s current emergency declarations, which serve as the basis for several ongoing orders including requirements that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 and a policy giving the state Education Department the authority to require masks in schools.
While many of the details remained in flux Friday afternoon, House Speaker Matt Ritter said he expected his chamber would vote Thursday to continue the 11 policies, including the order on masks, which has proven controversial in some areas.
Although often interpreted as requiring masks in schools, the order leaves discretion up to the Education Department and the commissioner of public health who have so far chosen to require them. Ritter said House Democrats were somewhat split on the issue and the caucus planned to meet Monday to discuss the orders.
“I’m comfortable next Thursday leaving that discretion up to [the commissioners],” Ritter said. “Some people want a local option and there are some who are nervous that the commissioner will do whatever the governor wants. I’m trying to say to both sides that the system has operated pretty well and I trust the DPH commissioner to review all the relevant data and give her honest opinion.”
The Senate is expected to take up the orders the following week on Monday, Feb. 14.
Details on Tuesday’s informational hearing were less concrete Friday. Several relevant agency commissioners were expected to testify but it was unclear whether members of the public would be asked to speak.
Meanwhile, each of the legislature’s four caucuses may send representatives. Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, will attend as will the panel’s ranking Republican Rep. William Petit, a doctor from Plainville. Sen. Saud Anwar, a South Windsor Democrat and pulmonologist, will participate.
It was unclear Friday afternoon whether Senate Republicans would send a representative. Earlier in the week, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, released a statement calling for a series of public hearings with in-person testimony followed by a traditional committee process before codifying the orders.
“Anything short of official public hearings before the committees of cognizance on these policies is nothing more than a charade,” Kelly and Formica said.
The legislative steps to hear testimony and potentially extend the policy giving the state discretion of school mask requirements comes as the governor has teased a potential shift on the issue.
On Wednesday, he told reporters he was watching the state’s COVID-19 metrics, which would inform the future of the policy.
“I think we’ll have a lot of clarity over the next few days, over the next week. And if the metrics say it’s time for a change, we’ll make a change,” Lamont said.
Since then, coronavirus numbers have continued to decline. On Friday, the number of patients hospitalized with the virus dropped by 84 to 785 statewide and the daily infection rate sunk to 6.58%.
Ultimately, Ritter said, the future of the school mask policy was not up to the governor, it was up to the agency commissioners.
“I would think they would want to wait for the legislature to act because we could do a lot of things,” Ritter said. “I would be shocked if they went ahead of legislative action on that.”