Alex Knopp served two terms as Mayor of Norwalk (2001-05) and eight terms as Norwalk State Representative (1987-2001). He recently ended 14 years as a Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School.
I urge the General Assembly today in its special session to vote to approve the limited extension of public health-related executive orders as requested by Gov. Ned Lamont for the reason that the Covid crisis has not yet ended in Connecticut. The type of flexibility and efficiency inherent in executive responses against the virus are still necessary for at least the next several months.
“These orders are still needed to protect the public and continue critical measures to provide healthcare access and economic relief and respond to evolving changes,” Lamont wrote to state legislators on July 8. “They are also narrowly targeted to achieve specific goals that would otherwise be unachievable because of statutory or regulatory barriers that were not contemplated in the context of a highly transmissible and long-lasting disease outbreak when the statutes were passed.”
The Covid pandemic over the past 16 months caused more than 600,000 deaths and millions of hospitalizations in the United States. It strained the capacity of almost every public, private and nonprofit institution in our country, shutting state capitols and schools, closing businesses, imposing public health mandates, and causing especially severe hardships in underserved communities. Relationships between the federal government and the states, between the states and localities, and between governments and citizens all entered unchartered territory.
To respond to this once-in-a-century pandemic, the standard model of public health federalism that had evolved over the last 50 years was deployed in nearly every state. This federal-state division of responsibilities left the declaration of public health emergencies and the imposition of masking, social distancing and other health mandates to the states with the federal government attempting to provide funding, research, production and distribution of vaccines, PPT and other resources back to the states. Governors in nearly every state assumed wide new powers.
In Connecticut this crisis governing model was activated when Gov. Lamont declared a public health emergency on March 10, 2020, to invoke his existing statutory authority. By all accounts, his subsequent use of executive authority, while extensive and unprecedented, was exercised judiciously and carefully, as evidenced by the fact that political opponents were unable or unwilling when challenged to propose any specific executive order they would revoke. Despite these measures, 8,000 Connecticut residents have died, as the Covid virus struck vulnerable populations like the elderly in nursing homes and caused economic ruin for small businesses, restaurant owners and retailers.
The restrictions imposed by Lamont were challenged by affected individuals and business organizations. Ruling on these legal challenges filed against the state government, the Connecticut Supreme Court, along with state superior courts and the federal district court, declared that under this state crisis model Lamont had not exceeded his statutory authority and that the delegation of this rule-making authority by the General Assembly was consistent with the Connecticut Constitution and its distribution of powers among the three branches of government. As part of the constitutional lawmaking process even during the crisis, the Legislature twice ratified Lamont’s executive orders and extended the duration of his emergency authority.
Most importantly, Connecticut’s implementation of the state’s leadership role in a public health crisis has been among the most effective response of any state in suppressing the spread of Covid-19.
As public health measures and vaccination campaigns significantly reduced the spread and severity of the Covid virus, the Legislature on May 20 revised the emergency statutes, both to enhance their legislative authority to veto any executive order and to shorten the duration of each new emergency declaration. In addition, the new law extended certain executive orders until July 20.
Now the question is: Should the July 20 deadline be extended at Lamont’s request until Sept. 30?
I believe the answer is “yes,” for the following reasons:
First, Connecticut still needs to maintain public health precautions in the face of both remaining pockets of illness and concern about the accelerated spread of the new Delta variant in other states. Fully 30 percent of Connecticut residents have not received even one vaccine dose and 1.5 million residents are not fully vaccinated.
Second, the request is limited both in duration until Sept. 30 and in scope, seeking extension of only 11 orders. The request is not open-ended. The landscape can be reexamined in the fall.
Third, the governor’s request appropriately identifies key policy areas where the flexibility, timeliness and adaptability of executive orders in the face of unknown public health developments are still needed. These include: masking and remote learning requirements when public schools reopen in the fall; the location and management of new vaccine clinics; extending the masking authority of the state Dept. of Public Health; setting Covid safety policies for early childhood centers; and providing congregate housing for the homeless in hotels.
Fourth, extension of the health emergency will facilitate Connecticut’s access to federal “rescue” funds.
The argument of Republican leaders and others against the extension is unpersuasive because it is based on the faulty premise that the Covid virus has been eliminated. “The emergency is over,” said the founder of “No Tolls CT” at a Capitol rally on July 12, as many held “Dump King Ned” signs. “The emergency is over. Covid is contained,” State Rep. Mark Anderson told the crowd [CT News Junkie, 7/12/21]. The fact that one-third of Connecticut’s population is unvaccinated itself demonstrates that the threat of the virus is neither “over” nor sufficiently “contained.”
Based on this unscientific outlook, the Republican Senate leadership even expressed its intention to default on the state’s current effort to maximize federal dollars for Connecticut. The two top Senate Republican leaders issued a statement against the extension, asserting: “We also have federal funding pouring in regardless of an emergency declaration, including hundreds of millions of dollars that still haven’t even been allocated.” It is worth noting that the legislative session to approve the allocations isn’t even scheduled to begin until September!
The better view on seeking federal funding was expressed by the Governor’s spokesperson Lora Rae Anderson: “The continuation of these emergencies [declarations] will also allow us to access millions of dollars in federal funding and FEMA reimbursement that could otherwise be left on the table.” [Hartford Courant, 7/12/21]
The real underlying political purpose of Monday’s rally and the partisan rhetoric was correctly identified by the CT Mirror: “Aided by talk radio hosts, Republicans tried Monday [at the rally] to gauge the political value of residual resentment towards Gov. Ned Lamont over COVID-19 restrictions that largely disappeared in May as infections plummeted.” [CT Mirror, 7/13/21]
Even though I endorse extending these extraordinary executive powers in the short run, I also urge that policymakers conduct a serious examination of the state’s public health emergency statutes by empaneling a blue ribbon commission to review the public health emergency operations of the three branches of government over the last 18 months. We should learn from this crisis about how to better protect democratic values while improving the efficiency and accountability of the government’s actions– even as we hope that such extraordinary powers won’t be needed again for another 100 years.