Trumbull campaigns clash over COVID protocols at debate

Photo of Amanda Cuda

TRUMBULL — Tuesday’s public forum between the town’s two candidates for first selectman is expected to go on as planned, despite a last-minute objection to the event’s ground rules that flared up over the weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, Mark Block, the Republican challenger, posted on his Facebook page that debate rules requiring identification and proof of vaccination against COVID-19 came from his Democratic opponent, incumbent First Selectman Vicki Tesoro.

Block also publicly objected to the rules, pointing out that some recent town events — including a economic development breakfast that took place last week — had no such requirements.

“It seems hypocritical to require ID and proof of vaccination at an event with town residents when such proof is not a current town policy or required to enter any town building,” Block said. He went on to say the requirement was “unnecessary, divisive and disenfranchises residents who should be able to participate in this forum to ask us their important questions.”

The Tesoro campaign soon countered with a post on its own campaign page, stating that Block’s campaign had agreed to the rules in late September.

“My campaign had numerous calls with Mr. Block’s campaign to discuss the upcoming forums. The campaigns agreed to a series of rules,” according to the post. “Both campaigns agreed that attendees must show proof of vaccination and corresponding personal identification, as well as wear masks.”

She added that the economic development forum was a town event and Tuesday’s forum was a campaign event in a much smaller venue.

Block, asked on Monday if his campaign had approved the rules weeks ago, called Tesoro’s comments “a smokescreen” and said that good leaders needed to adjust to changing conditions.

“That has nothing to do with what is happening today. Times have changed,” he said.

Email exchanges indicate the two campaigns were in regular contact in September, finalizing details of the event. On Sept. 29 Tesoro campaign representative Gail Ritacco emailed a copy of the debate protocols and a list of potential dates. Block campaign official Joe Pifko replied a day later, saying “Everything looks good.”

Block himself had weighed in on Sept. 22, requesting a minimum of two candidate discussions, one with questions directly from the public, and agreeing to at least some COVID protocols.

“The other I’d do as a moderated debate but must have live audience properly distanced with masks is fine,” he wrote.

Tesoro said she doesn’t believe “in changing rules at the last minute before an event, especially a debate.” She said some people likely agreed to attend based on the fact that they knew others there would be vaccinated. Changing the attendance requirement at the last minute could discourage those people from attending, she said.

Both candidates confirmed they intend to attend Tuesday’s event, which takes place at 7 p.m. in the Trumbull Library’s community room and will be live-streamed.

Jean Rabinow, membership chair for the League of Women Voters of Greater Bridgeport Area, which is hosting Tuesday’s event, said to her knowledge, there is no standard set of league COVID protocol rules for debates.

“Some leagues are doing their debates this year, as they did last year, entirely by Zoom video conference,” Rabinow said. “Some are in person but limiting audience size.”

For example, a candidate debate in Darien last week limited attendance to 30 people, she said.

“Some are asking for proof of vaccination and some are not,” she said.