As COVID cases rise, 36th District Senate candidates debate path forward for Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan

Photo of Ken Borsuk

GREENWICH — The winner of the Aug. 17 special election to represent the 36th Senate District will be grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic as the highly contagious delta variant causes an increase in cases.

The issues of wearing masks, mandating vaccines, reopening schools and following executive orders from Gov. Ned Lamont are returning to the forefront in the race to replace Alex Kasser , who unexpectedly resigned in June.

The candidates in the three-way race June, are Republican Ryan Fazio, Democrat Alexis Gevanter and petition candidate John Blankley in a district that covers all of Greenwich as well as portions of Stamford and New Canaan.

There has been growing pushback from Republicans — and some Democrats — on Lamont’s use of emergency powers during the pandemic. While many of the executive orders have expired, the legislature has extended 11 of the Democratic governor’s orders through September.

When the emergency declarations of March 2020 were extended in July, all of the Republicans in the state legislature voted against the measure as did nine Democrats in the House and four in the Senate.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was outspoken about the need to take measures, including having limitations on indoor gatherings and the importance of allocating resources to the most vulnerable,” said Fazio, who unsuccessfully challenged Kasser’s bid for reelection last November. “I was out delivering masks to nursing homes and hospitals. I’ve been a very big cheerleader for development and dissemination of the vaccine. I think we need balanced and targeted policies to protect public health.”

But there is no need for what he called “heavy-handed policies” at this point in the pandemic, Fazio said. Most of the policies on businesses and gatherings have been lifted, but Fazio criticized Lamont, saying that the extended emergency powers are “unreasonable.”

“The fact that the legislature continues to meet and have special sessions and operate in regular order shows we should resume the traditional balance of powers and constitutional structure of our government,” he said. “The General Assembly needs to be making laws in concert with the governor, not the governor exerting emergency powers over major public policy areas.”

But the other candidates in the race disagree with Fazio.

Calling herself a “Lamont Democrat,” Gevanter said the governor has done “an incredible job leading us through this pandemic by following the science and listening to experts to keep us safe.” If elected, she said she would be a partner to him on such matters, including COVID and said he has not gone too far with his emergency executive powers.

“I think of course there will be a time when it will be unnecessary to do so,” she said. “This is not something that should extend forever. But right now, it not only makes sense from a science and health perspective but also it’s allowed us to reap the benefit of federal funding, which is good for Connecticut.”

Blankley, who had been a Democrat until breaking with the party when it backed Gevanter’s candidacy for the Senate, also positioned himself as a strong ally for Lamont, a Greenwich resident, saying that the governor has done a “remarkable job” during COVID.

“I absolutely agree that he should have emergency powers,” Blankley said. “It will enable the state to move faster on things that need to be done to tackle something really serious like a potential surge in the pandemic. And I know Ned — Ned is no dictator. He is a sensible man. He is not going to abuse his power.

“The legislature, when it gives that executive power to the governor, is giving its own power away,” he said. “But if there is a real need, and I perceive that there is, then I’m very comfortable giving it to Ned Lamont.”

Parents are also asking about mask requirements in classrooms this fall. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said all students and staff should wear masks inside schools, regardless of vaccination status.

“We’re going to have to follow the science,” said Gevanter. “The science changes every day. … We need to be nimble and open-minded. I’m a mom of two young boys, and I fully, fully understand how much none of us want to be masking our kids. It’s really difficult to watch, but at the same time, we need to keep them safe and we need to keep the vulnerable people in our communities safe.”

Gevanter said she believes residents are united in wanting to move past the pandemic, but she said it must be done in a way that’s safe. With the delta variant, she said the state needs to do what it can to get ahead of it.

“As we’ve seen, the science has evolved as we’ve gone through this pandemic. Sometimes that means opening up and other times that means increasing safety precautions,” she said. “As we move through this summer, of course what we need to do is try to continue to increase our vaccination rates. We want to promote and encourage that. We want to continue to educate people about that.”

Fazio said he wants a statewide standard for schools to open in the fall, and credits Lamont for pushing for a reopening. And with a vaccine available to all adults and “highly effective” in helping people, he said families and local boards of education should have the power to make decisions, not follow mandates from the governor.

“I like the idea of localities and families making more decisions for themselves than the state government making for them,” he said. “I think the facts on the ground are something you have to roll with as they change. And different parts of the state are going to have different circumstances related to public health at different points in time. So one-size-fits-alerted by the governor I don’t think is the right answer.”

Blankley said it i important to listen to the public health experts,even if what they are saying is not popular.

“I will support policies and initiatives that follow CDC guidelines,” Blankley said. “If that means masks in schools then so be it.”

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com