The Connecticut state Capitol bustled with energy Wednesday as members of the public and lobbyists congregated in once-familiar spots on the second floor for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic closed the building.
Although legislative leaders reopened the Capitol last summer, everyone aside from lawmakers, their staff and members of the media have been confined to the first floor, at arm’s length from the two chambers where state laws are made. As a result, the historic building has often felt hushed and empty even as lawmakers met for session.
That changed Wednesday after House Speaker Matt Ritter opened access to the second floor where the House chamber is located. Ritter also shifted policy to make masks optional in the chamber.
“Everyone in my caucus is happy to see a little bit of normalcy,” Ritter said after a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “We hope it stays.”
The state’s COVID-19 metrics have largely plateaued in recent weeks after a sharp decline that signaled the end of a surge in cases driven by the omicron variant. On Tuesday, Connecticut’s infection rate hovered around 2.4% and 191 people were hospitalized with the virus.
Before either chamber gaveled in Wednesday to approve a series of judges and executive nominations, lobbyists had taken up their old positions behind velvet ropes in the House lobby. A handful of women handed passerbys flyers outlining their opposition to a controversial public health bill.
It was a welcome change for lobbyists, who had often felt handicaped by their distance from the legislative process.
“For lobbyists, we would try to reach legislators on the phone and they would assume we were trying to sell them extended car warranties. It was difficult to communicate,” Brian Anderson, legislative director for AFSCME Council 4, said.
Anderson said it was important to have direct communication between members of the state’s labor unions and their lawmakers. The legislative process had suffered in the absence of that dialogue, he said.
“There are things that passed that wouldn’t have passed if there was direct communication,” Anderson said.
Chris Healy, executive director of the Catholic Public Affairs Conference, agreed the shift to largely remote lawmaking had hindered the democratic process.
“You can’t have a democracy via Zoom,” Healy said. “When lawmakers have to actually face and talk to people, where they can see their emotions, read their faces, talk as human beings. That has more of an impact than the distillation of a dystopian television world.”
For the time being, the third floor of the Capitol where the Senate chamber is located remains closed to the public. On Wednesday, Capitol security technicians stood at the stairwells between the two floors ready to divert any wandering residents.
Senate President Martin Looney said his caucus would continue to monitor the state’s COVID-19 metrics and make mitigation determinations on a week-to-week basis. Looney said his caucus was placing a premium on protecting the health of its members and staff.
There’s also the legislative process to protect, Looney said. In the three weeks since this year’s short session began, two senators had already tested positive for the virus, one within the last week.
“We’re very concerned if we ever had an outbreak of several members at once and there are only 36 of us altogether and each of us is either a chair of a committee or a ranking member,” Looney said. “We have to be extra cautious to avoid going off the rails in terms of losing a significant part of the session.”
Republicans have long called for a complete opening of the building. Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly restated that position Wednesday, saying the chamber has avoided widespread outbreaks despite infections in their ranks.
In the meantime, Kelly said it was nice to see the Capitol building more alive than it has felt since the outset of the pandemic.
“You can feel the energy. The last two years we’ve been coming up here — it’s a virtual ghost town,” Kelly said. “Now there’s an energy in the air. There’s a vibe. That’s what democracy’s all about: feeling that energy and the vibe of the people in their building.”