Lamont to ease COVID restrictions 

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont is lifting coronavirus-related capacity limits on businesses, houses of worships, and entertainment and sports venues while still mandating masking, spacing and other public health requirements.

Lamont joined a growing number of governors who are now easing restrictions intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 despite warnings from health officials and medical professionals for states not to let their guards down now.

The changes announced Thursday are the most sweeping revisions since Lamont started to gradually ease a partial shutdown of the economy last May 20 after he locked down the state last March and April.

A year later, he said the timing is right because the state is continuing to make good progress in terms of reducing the spread of the virus and increasing the number of COVID-19 vaccinations every day.

“I think Connecticut has earned it. It has been tough,” Lamont said. “People have been frustrated. They have been sheltering at home, and a lot of our businesses really suffered, and people took a hit, and I felt that I think more than most.”

MOST CAPACITY LIMITS are scheduled to be lifted on March 19, including for restaurants, retail stores, personal care businesses, professional offices, gyms and fitness centers, and museums, aquariums and zoos.

Lamont is planning to increase limits on social and recreational gatherings at private residences and commercial venues. The maximums for private residences are going to rise from 10 people each indoors and outdoors to 25 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. The limits for commercial establishments are going to quadruple from 25 attendees indoors to 100 and from 50 attendees outdoors to 200.

The current 50% limit on indoor religious, spiritual and worship gatherings is also slated to end. Last month, Lamont dropped a numerical cap that applied if it was lower than the occupancy limit.

Other revisions announced Thursday will take effect on later dates. Capacity limits on early childhood classes will increase from 16 to 20 on March 29. Four days later, outdoor amusement parks can open, and outdoor entertainment venues can have up to 10,000 people, and indoor stadiums will be able to operate at 10% capacity.

The Connecticut Retail Merchants Association applauded the revised capacity limits that Lamont laid out.

“The state’s revised plan will permit retail business in communities across our state to return closer to normal operations,” said Timothy Phelan, president of the trade association.

He stressed retailers will continue to adhere to remaining state protocols to protect the health and safety of customers, including continuing mask wearing, providing informative signs and frequent disinfectant cleaning.

While the capacity limit is being eliminated for restaurants, Lamont said eating establishments will have to continue to follow state mandates, including limiting seating to eight people per table, closing dining rooms at 11 p.m., and maintaining 6 feet of spacing between tables, or alternatively using non-porous barriers to separate tables.

Like CRMA, the Connecticut Restaurant Association also praised the moves announced Thursday, but the industry group said the state needs to fully lift the 11 p, m. curfew, limit of table sizes and more before restaurants fully recover.

“It can do it safely by maintaining social distancing and mask rules, along with other safety precautions,” said Scott Dolch, the executive director of the restaurant association. “We look forward to working with our partners in government toward those goals in the weeks ahead.”

LAMONT CAUTIONED the reopening plans announced Thursday depend on the public health conditions continuing the favorable trends that led to his decision to ease up on state restrictions.

“I hope to God that we don’t have to turn back this time, that the metrics stay in a positive direction” he said.

The governor recalled how he had to reverse course in November after he loosened coronavirus-related mandates in October, including increasing the cap on indoor dining from 50% to 75% of fire code capacity.

“We tried to start opening things last fall, and then pretty soon you saw a 50-state wave of COVID infections, starting down in the South, then the Midwest, then coming right here to the Northeast, and we could not keep that way,” Lamont said.

He said again that he has no specific metrics in mind that would trigger another rollback, but he continued to say the capacity of acute-care hospitals and their intensive care units would guide his decision-making.

The latest weekly federal report showed occupancy rates of 78% for inpatient hospital beds and 57% for ICU beds. The count included approximately 7,760 inpatient beds and 1,045 ICU beds.

State health officials on Thursday reported a net decline of 18 patients hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to 433 statewide.

The daily positive test rate dipped below 2% based on 878 new cases of COVID-19 reported out of 47,132 test results received Wednesday. There now have been 284,500 reported infections.

The state Department of Public Health also reported three additional cases of a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus that first emerged in the United Kingdom. There were two cases in Watertown and one in Greenwich, bringing the running total to 66.

The number of doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in Connecticut topped 1 million this week. Just 361,046 residents are fully vaccinated. Before this week, only the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were being used. The state received its first delivery Tuesday of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine for distribution.

DPH officials reported an additional 15 coronavirus-associated deaths. There now have been 7,693 deaths attributed to COVID-19 or complications from the disease.

The state reported Thursday there have been 2,802 cases in Naugatuck, 719 in Prospect and 445 in Beacon Falls since last March.

There have been 87 coronavirus-related deaths in Naugatuck, six in Beacon Falls and three in Prospect.

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this report.