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In consecutive Connecticut General Assembly special sessions Monday and Tuesday, Connecticut legislators granted Governor Ned Lamont an extension on his emergency public health and civil preparedness powers through Feb. 15. 

This is the sixth extension granted to Lamont since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. The extension gives him the authority to keep a vaccination mandate for state and nursing home employees, require masks in schools and either vaccinations or regular testing for employees in schools and day care centers. Following four hours of debate Monday afternoon, the state House of Representatives passed the extension 80 to 60, with 11 representatives choosing to abstain. The state Senate voted 18 to 15, with three representatives choosing to abstain. Shouts from dozens of anti-mask and anti-vaccination mandate protestors outside the state capitol reverberated through the chamber walls during the House special session, as state Republicans inside criticized the extension as unwarranted and called on Lamont to step aside. 

“The emergency declarations make possible, and therefore, should remain in place as we prepare for any possible winter surge and adjust our public health campaign to deal with this continuing emergency,” Lamont wrote in a letter to legislative leaders calling for the special sessions to extend his powers.  

In the letter, Lamont said he was seeking the extension because “a very small number” of COVID-19 orders are still necessary “to ensure a comprehensive, robust and flexible response to and recovery from the pandemic.” 

Martin Looney, Senate president pro tempore of New Haven, supported the extension alongside fellow Democrat state legislators Tuesday. He said it would help the state with its vaccination campaign, and it would allow officials to continue providing emergency fiscal relief and housing to those affected by the pandemic and its economic ripples.

“Like it or not, accept it or not, deny it or not, we are still in the midst of an emergency and there are times when executive action has to be taken in a time sensitive way,” Looney said.

But state Republicans, as well as two Democrats in the Senate and 10 in the House, voted against the extension. 

Rep. Jay Case (R-63) said he has been in touch with constituents who work as teachers and in group homes and could lose their jobs over refusing to comply with Lamont’s mandates. He called these instances “discrimination” in the workplace. 

“People want us here,” Case said. “They want us here working. They feel as though their voice is not being heard and it’s very frustrating.”

Others opposing the extension, including Rep. Brian Lanoue (R-45), highlighted worries that vaccine mandates could deepen the already-existing shortage of school bus drivers across the state, although the expected mass exodus of bus drivers due to the vaccine Monday mostly fizzled.

On Tuesday afternoon, state officials reported 553 new COVID cases. Hospitalizations are down by five people since yesterday, bringing the total to 259.

Many Republicans opposing the extension commended Lamont for Connecticut’s high vaccination rates and low COVID-19 infection rates compared to other states; they cited those numbers as reason for Lamont to relinquish his emergency powers. 

“In my opinion there no longer is an emergency,” Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco (R-80) said at the session. “We are always gonna have a virus, we are always gonna have flus, there will always be a variant coming. That’s just the way we live and we fight them off all the time.” 

Mastrofrancesco, who does not believe masks “work,” also claimed the governor’s mask mandate in schools leads to distraction in class, headaches and issues with socializing — claims that scientists have pointed out are not true. “Our children can’t breathe in schools with these masks on,” she said. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in Aug. 2020 that cloth coverings could be safely worn by all children ages two and older — including the vast majority of children with underlying health conditions — with rare exception. The organization urged cloth face coverings for children when physical distance was not possible, “including while in schools, child care and other group settings.”

Mastrofrancesco said the call on vaccine and mask mandates should be left to state legislators. 

“It is my job as a legislator to make those tough decisions,” she said. “That’s our job. That’s why we were elected. To let the governor make these unilateral decisions without the input from the legislature, without giving us the opportunity to vote on them is just wrong.” 

The only New Haven official who did not support the extension was Rep. Robyn Porter, who was one of 13 Democrats who voted against another extension of Lamont’s powers in July. Then, Porter told CT Mirror that she was worried about repercussions for legislators who did not support the extension.

But New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, who was not present at the special session, told the News that he fully supports the legislature’s decision on extending Lamont’s emergency powers. 

“The Governor’s emergency declaration is appropriate and necessary for many federal programs, such as FEMA, which is currently helping us house over 100 individuals in non congregate settings,” Elicker wrote to the News on Tuesday. 

​​House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas (D-9) expressed similar sentiments at the debate, arguing that the state has benefitted “from the steady leadership” of Lamont over the course of the pandemic.

“I’ve grown weary myself of the rhetoric denying what we all know to be true,” Rojas said. “Denial that we still face the continued threat of disruption to our lives due to COVID. Denial that COVID could disrupt our ability to educate our children and keep them in school, allow them to play sports and participate in clubs, to have some normalcy. That denial is irresponsible.”

In Tuesday’s Senate session, Looney said extending Lamont’s emergency powers is more necessary now than when the legislature last extended those powers in July, because of increased rates of infection and the threat of the Delta Variant. 

Due to an anticipated rise in COVID-19 cases in this fall due to the Delta Variant, Looney said allowing the governor to impose mandates is essential to keeping residents safe. He added that regardless of potential spikes ahead, the current COVID-19 emergency is “not over” for children under 12 who cannot yet receive the vaccine. 

A law passed in July allows the six top leaders of the Connecticut General Assembly to meet within 72 hours of any orders the Governor issues and potentially repeal those orders. 

SOPHIE SONNENFELD