Connecticut will end its COVID-19 restrictions in two steps next month, beginning May 1 for outdoor activities and May 19 for everything else. The remaining mandate will be a requirement for wearing masks in public indoor places.
Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday moves that essentially will conclude the extraordinary state of emergency that began 14 months ago — but do not mark end of a pandemic that claimed 19 lives since Friday and pushed the state’s death toll past 8,000.
The announcement at the first of his twice-a-week televised COVID briefings was anticlimactic, described by Lamont as another of the steps the governor has taken towards reopening civic, social and commercial life in Connecticut.
With 2,736 new infections since Friday and nearly 500 people hospitalized with COVID, the governor described the coronavirus as a public health danger that persists under a significant degree of control due to a vaccination rate among the highest in the U.S.
Nearly 90% of residents 65 and older are vaccinated, and the Lamont administration projects an overall vaccination rate of 75% by the time restrictions are ended. Currently, 61% of adults have received at least their first dose of a COVID vaccine.
“You could always say, ‘Let’s wait until we’re 100% vaccinated. Let’s wait until we have zero-percent risk. What’s the harm in waiting another month? What’s the harm in waiting another three months?’ So you have to make these judgments every day,” Lamont said.
He offered scant detail about any consultations made with public health officials about lifting restrictions, including those who had previously advised him on reopening. The positivity rate of COVID testing is now consistently under 3%, but the state has its hotspots, some fueled by a highly contagious variant.
Lamont said he made the decision Sunday morning at a meeting with his chief of staff and chief operating officer, Paul Mounds and Josh Geballe, and two key commissioners, Deidre Gifford of the Department of Public Health and David Lehman of Economic and Community Development.
“The governor really has asked those two commissioners to really do the necessary research, to inquire with their counterparts in other states, to really look at data and really come back to the governor with those answers and, eventually, recommendations for the governor to make a final decision, which he did,” Mounds said. “So, it’s not just a matter of small group think.”
Neither commissioner was on the late-afternoon call with reporters. Lamont’s guests were Tim Restall, the president of the minor-league baseball team the Hartford Yard Goats, and his two regulars, Mounds and Geballe, two senior aides promoted to their current jobs just days before the virus was detected in Connecticut.
The Yard Goats’ home field in Hartford has been used as a vaccination site. The season for the double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies opens May 11. Lamont lightly promised to be in the stands during the team’s first home stand.
While the state will allow the team to sell every seat, Major League Baseball may continue to impose some limits, Restall said.
Some theaters already have cautioned a slower return to normalcy. The Bushnell in Hartford, for example, is not planning a resumption of its Broadway series until the fall.
Bars that do not serve food have been closed since the start of the pandemic: They can resume outdoor service on May 1 and indoor service on May 19. With an end to social-distancing requirements, most restaurants will be able to add tables. Currently, tables must be six feet apart or be separated by Plexiglas, and they must close at 11.
“Today’s news gives restaurants a plan and a timeline for recovery,” said Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association. “It’s possible because of the incredible job Connecticut has done fighting COVID, from the tireless work of local business owners and employees to put safety first, to the nation-leading efforts by Gov. Lamont and his team to get our population vaccinated.
All restrictions on businesses essentially will end on the 19th, Lamont said.
“And what does that mean? That means the social distancing will be relaxed. It’ll be guidance. It’ll be up to you and your restaurant how you want to do it, keep people safe. But no mandates from us,” Lamont said.
With his emergency powers expiring on May 20, the continued mandate of wearing masks at stores and other indoor public spaces will require the consent of the General Assembly.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said later he expected the legislature to address the laws pertaining to heath emergencies rather than conduct a review of each executive order, including the ones pertaining to the wearing of masks.
Less clear is whether the legislature would reopen the Capitol to the public on May 19th and abandon the social-distancing rules that have kept most lawmakers in their offices on session days and not in the House or Senate. All but two committees have passed their deadlines for reporting out legislation.
“I’ll have to speak to the Senate about that,” Ritter said. “It’s still complicated.”
The House was in session Monday night, debating a bill curtailing the religious exemptions vaccines otherwise required for children to attend school.
Lamont stuck to what has been his tone throughout much of the pandemic: He described the coronavirus as dangerous, not to be underestimated, but also an enemy that can be controlled, if not defeated, with a sensible community response.
For 14 months, that response has been a focus on social distancing, wearing masks and restrictions on the capacity at houses of worship, restaurants, bars and other public venues. On Monday, he turned his focus to getting the rest of Connecticut vaccinated.
Community immunity is the best defense against outbreaks, and the vaccine is now available with little or no waiting in many places, he said.
He promised an aggressive response to local outbreaks.
“We’re going to come in with the reinforcements. We’re going to do a very aggressive vaccination program, do everything we can in terms of track and trace,” Lamont said.