The House voted Thursday to extend a set of COVID-19 management policies including controversial orders maintaining state oversight of school masking requirements and vaccine mandates for Connecticut nursing home workers.
The chamber voted 86 to 62 to codify the pandemic orders just one day into the legislative session and five days before Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency authority was set to expire. The Senate has scheduled a Monday vote on the legislation.
The vote fell generally along party lines with Democrats supporting the extension and Republicans opposing it. However, nine Democrats cast votes in opposition. They were Reps. Jill Barry of Glastonbury, Raghib Allie-Brennan of Bethel, and Pat Boyd of Pomfret, Michael DiGiovancarlo of Waterbury, John Hampton of Simsbury, Jennifer Leeper of Fairfield, Stephen Meskers of Greenwich, Kerry Wood of Rocky Hill,and Chris Ziogas of Bristol.
During the debate, proponents framed the legislation as a step away from the executive authority, which Lamont had used to manage the pandemic for nearly two years.
“This bill establishes a pathway and a timeline for our state to transition from responding to COVID to living with COVID,” Rep. Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden, said as he explained the bill.
However, of the policies approved Thursday, most of the debate centered on a provision preserving the executive branch’s authority to reimpose a mask mandate in schools. At the moment, Lamont has signaled the statewide mandate will be discontinued on Feb. 28, but the bill gives his education commissioner the power to reinstate it if necessary through June 30.
The school masking issue has been the most controversial of the governor’s ongoing COVID policies. Without action by the legislature, the decision would revert back to local boards of education.
During a public hearing Monday, a group of residents pushed lawmakers to give parents a mechanism to opt their children out of mask requirements and Republicans attempted unsuccessfully through an amendment to include such a clause. The amendment died on a 56 to 90, largely party-line vote.
“Yes, usually we’re up here advocating for local decision. You better believe it,” Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said. “But when it comes to masks, the people who know their children best, their young youth? No one like that parent.”
Several lawmakers remarked on the volume of feedback they’d received from parents seeking to end masking requirements.
“In 20 years serving the public, I have never once had the amount of emails and reach outs that we have had over the last two, three, four weeks,” Rep. Carol Hall, R-Enfield said. “It’s actually staggering.”
During a virtual press briefing before Thursday’s session, House Speaker Matt Ritter said legislators had received an influx of emails saying masks did not work. He said the statements did not match the scientific evidence he had reviewed.
“I don’t think that certain public health measures can be solely left to parents when what your decision does could impact others and that’s the missing element here,” Ritter said, adding that masks had helped to keep kids in schools. “Just like vaccines, when you say ‘it’s my choice,’ well that’s not true when you could injure or hurt other people.”
Lawmakers spent less time debating other elements of the bill, which included a provision extending through April 15 an order requiring certain health care workers including nursing home employees to receive COVID booster shots. The provision also delays a current deadline to comply with the mandate from Feb. 11 until March 7. The requirement is scheduled to expire completely on April 15.
Prior to passing the bill, lawmakers stripped a planned section which would have allowed school districts to waive a statewide requirement that a school year contain at least 180 days. It would have given districts up to five days in order to handle staffing shortages or high infection rates. D’Agostino brushed it aside quickly, saying, “Topic for another day, if at all. It’s out of the bill,” before the chamber adopted the change without comment or objection.
Another element of the bill extends an eviction diversion program for people who have submitted an application before Feb. 15. The Unite CT program uses federal funds to reimburse landlords for tenants who are behind on rent. Although the program has paid more than $200 million to landlords, many say they wait for weeks or months to receive reimbursements.
During the debate, Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, said for landlords, Unite CT was a “slow-moving behemoth, to put it kindly.” D’Agostino called it fair to make an extension for people who had already applied, but he conceded the program was “cumbersome.”
“I know it’s a slower process than everybody has wanted,” D’Agostino said “It has gummed up the housing courts a bit as well but the ultimate goal here we are meeting, which is distributing that federal aid directly to the landlords to make up for the tenants who couldn’t pay rent.