Local officials may have discretion to set stricter rules if cases spike

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont is considering giving municipalities facing spikes in COVID-19 the discretion to reimpose stricter mandates that were eased Thursday.

Lamont announced the possible policy change during a news briefing Thursday. He said he expects to make a final decision early next week, but gave every indication he plans to proceed, including identifying four towns in Eastern Connecticut that likely would be the first to meet the contemplated triggering threshold: Windham, Preston, Norwich and New London.

Lamont and aides said the administration can break with its no-exceptions policy because of knowledge gained over the last seven months, the course the viral outbreak has taken in the state and the progress made in the state’s response.

“I think now here we are in October, we have seen the nature of these outbreaks has tended to be somewhat localized, and we think we have some capacity to contain it,” Lamont said.

The concern at the outset of the pandemic was having a patchwork of local rules, causing people to travel around the state and possibly spread the disease because certain businesses were opened or activities were allowed in some communities but not in others, he said.

“Back early on, we were trying to make sure everybody didn’t want to drive from Darien to Willimantic to get a scotch and soda,” Lamont said. “We thought that wouldn’t be good.”

Bars and nightclubs remain closed at this time.

THE NEW APPROACH outlined Thursday would permit local elected officials to reinstitute previous state restrictions on businesses and gatherings if a town or city averages 15 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 on a rolling two-week basis.

At this time, only New London, Norwich, Preston and Windham meet that threshold. Most of the state’s 169 municipalities are seeing rates of less than 5 cases per 100,000 at this time.

More virus-related requirements were relaxed Thursday as Connecticut moved to its third reopening phase. Capacity limits increased for restaurants, hair salons, barbershops and other personal care businesses; libraries and museums; and indoor and outdoor event and performing arts venues. Attendance limits for social, recreational and religious gatherings also increased.

The revised policy Lamont sketched out would permit towns and cities that meet the case rate threshold to reimpose the rules that applied to businesses and gatherings in the second reopening phase.

For restaurants, this would mean the seating limit for dining rooms would revert to 50% capacity. The limit increased to 75% Thursday.

The new rules permit indoor performing arts venues to operate at 50% capacity. The previous maximum was 25 people, including staff that interacts with audience members.

LOCAL ELECTED OFFICIALS would be able to roll back reopening rules without needing state approval or having to report to state officials, Lamont said.

“They would do that just the same way you saw a number of towns decide to go to distance learning in their schools in the near term,” he said.

Lamont was unclear whether towns and cities would have discretion to pick and choose between the two sets of reopening guidelines when deciding which rules to apply, such as requiring restaurants to operate the previous 50% capacity limit, but allowing other businesses to follow the new 75% maximum.

“I don’t think we have gotten to that level of specificity,” he said.

Lamont said it seems simpler to limit the choice to following the stricter second-stage rules or the looser third-stage rules in their entirety.

He was unconcerned about politics entering local decision-making.

He said he heard from mayors and other local leaders who wanted to have latitude to respond to the changing circumstances in their communities.

“They understand their town could be at risk and they wanted to have a little more discretion in terms of keeping that pandemic under control within their borders,” Lamont said.

THROUGH THURSDAY, there have been approximately 59,750 cases of COVID-19 reported in Connecticut, 11,850 hospitalizations and 4,530 deaths, according to public health officials.

Public health officials reported 384 more cases since Wednesday, a net decline of 10 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 to 128 statewide, and five more coronavirus-associated deaths.

The Naugatuck Valley Health District reported nine news cases in Naugatuck since Tuesday, bringing to total number of cases since March to 469. There have been 60 cases in Beacon Falls, which didn’t change.

There have been 41 coronavirus-associated deaths in Naugatuck and none in Beacon Falls, according to health officials. These figures didn’t change.

The Chesprocott Health District reported Friday there have been 98 coronavirus cases in Prospect, seven more than last week. There have not been any coronavirus-associated deaths reported in town.

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this report.