The state Senate gave final passage Monday to a set of COVID-19 policies including preserving until June 30 state oversight of the controversial school masking requirement despite plans to sunset the mandate at the end of this month.
The Senate’s 21 to 14, largely party-line, vote comes just a day before the expiration of Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency authority, which had previously served as the basis for the set of orders. The House approved the legislation following an all-day debate last week.
In addition to all Republicans in the chamber, Democratic Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague opposed the legislation.
The package included roughly a dozen of the remaining emergency orders issued by Lamont over the course of the pandemic. Once numbering in the hundreds, the governor asked lawmakers to codify a handful of policies including an extension of a rule requiring nursing home employees to get COVID booster shots.
However, as with the House, the debate largely centered on the future of mask requirements in Connecticut classrooms.
“Look, there is a lot of interest in this but let’s be clear what we’re talking about. We’re talking about winding down mask mandates in schools in two weeks,” Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said as he explained the bill.
“People have strong opinions. Some folks want to extend that through the end of the year or for the foreseeable future and I understand that there are some members of this body who want them gone this afternoon,” Lesser said.
Without legislative action, the statewide mandate would expire along with Lamont’s emergency authority and leave local school boards with the option of enacting their own. The bill gives his education commissioner the power to reinstate it if necessary through June 30. The administration has announced plans to end the requirement on Feb. 28.
Throughout Monday’s debate, Republicans echoed the concerns of a group of parents who have long been opposed to the masking requirement. Many of them testified before a panel of lawmakers last week.
“We need to respect the people we represent and hear their voices,” Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said. “The controversy and the emotion you hear about school mask mandates … is because the parents and many of our teachers have articulated viewpoints that said the cure that the state is mandating is causing more damage than the virus.”
Republicans tried unsuccessfully to amend the language of the bill to give parents a mechanism to opt their children out of mask requirements. Explaining the amendment, Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, pointed to the group of parents who demonstrated outside the state Capitol building as lawmakers began their session last week.
“This is the right thing to do,” Sampson said. “The people that were outside on opening day, this is what they want and I believe it’s our obligation to give it to them since we represent their wishes and we exist only because of their desire to have a government of, for and by the people.”
The amendment failed on 13 to 21, party-line vote.
Asked about the parental choice option during a press conference outside the chamber, Senate President Martin Looney said the children of parents opposed to masks do not exist inside a vacuum and attend school with vulnerable peers.
“Everybody should be concerned about the health of the whole community,” Looney said. “We have children who go to school with compromised immune systems who will continue to be wearing masks and who will be safer only if other children are also wearing masks.”
The Senate also voted 21-13 Monday on a resolution which would extend public health and civil preparedness emergencies, allowing the state to continue receiving enhanced federal reimbursements under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The resolution, which the House passed last week, transfers authority of the declarations from the executive branch to the legislature and extends them until June 30. Unlike the special act to extend the governor’s executive orders it does not need to be signed by the governor.
Connecticut’s COVID metrics have been in steady decline in recent weeks. Numbers released Monday by the governor’s office found that the number of patients hospitalized with the virus dropped by 61 over the weekend to 406. The positivity rate stood at 3.32%.
Towards the end of the debate over the ongoing orders, Sen. Paul Formica, R- East Lyme, said the numbers no longer constituted a public emergency.
“There is a public concern. There are public safety measures we must take and continue to take but to rise to the level of the emergency and to allow blanket decisions by commissioners doesn’t seem to be the way to go,” Formica said.
Looney disagreed, saying the state still faced an emergency but he argued that with Monday’s vote the legislature had taken more control of the state’s pandemic policies.
“We are doing exactly what so many members of the minority party have said that we should do, which is to have a legislative involvement in — participation in the decision about continuing emergency actions,” Looney said.
The governor is expected to sign the bill Tuesday.