HARTFORD — On the eve of Connecticut’s initial reopening for non-essential businesses, Gov. Ned Lamont on Tuesday ordered that flags return to full-staff as a hopeful signal that the state has finally turned a corner two months after many began sheltering in place and unemployment soared.
Coincidentally, the state’s death toll fell to 23, the lowest one-day fatality total since April 6, while two nationally known physicians who serve on the governor’s Reopen CT Advisory Group, told reporters that Connecticut is as ready as it can be for the first phase of reopening many businesses, including socially distant, outdoor dining.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb of Westport, the former head of the federal Food & Drug Administration, and Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a special health adviser under President Barack Obama, warned that while the coronavirus pandemic should wane during the summer months when its outdoor transmission is less likely, it’s expected to return in the fall.
“This emphasis on using face masks, having small gatherings and having as much outdoors as possible are pretty evident in the way that the task force and your government have been thinking about reopening the process,” Emanuel told reporters during the governor’s daily update from the state Capitol. Emanuel stressed that the state is being cautious in its multi-phased rollout.
“And you’ve also developed a set of standards and when you might have to hold back and reverse course because the outbreak has gotten so severe,” said Emanuel, of Philadelphia, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
The 23 fatalities reported on Tuesday brought the state total to 3,472 since March 17. The net decrease of six hospitalizations, for a total of 914 statewide, was the 27th consecutive day of declining hospitalizations.
“In thinking about how to reopen and how to phase the reopening, I have been impressed by the thinking of both looking at the public health measures on one axis and looking at the economic impact on another axis,” Emanuel said. “Both factors need to be taken into account, and you need to get to that sweet spot: Places where the public health risks are low or you can lower them by measures like holding activities outside, and the economic impact is large, so that when you open up, you have a lot of people going back to work and you have a large amount of economic activity that can resume.”
Emanuel said he favored opening the state’s sleep-away summer camps, but was overruled. He warned that casinos are very problematic for older patrons, and warned that they should be kept closed in early phases of reopening. In response, late Tuesday night, Rodney Butler, Mashantucket Pequot tribal chairman, said he found Emanuel’s remarks “profoundly offensive and uninformed. He stressed the importance of the two tribal casinos to the state economy, with 12,000 workers and an annual contribution of $250 million to the state.
Gottlieb said the state is positioning itself well for the fall, by training hundreds of people in contact tracing, the process of interviewing COVID-19 patients to find out who they might have met and infected, so those people can be warned and self-quarantine to stop the spread.
“It’s not going to prevent outbreaks from occurring,” Gottlieb said. “I think we’re going to have outbreaks in the fall in different cities, in different states, and we’re going to have to address that, but the hope is that we can prevent another national epidemic and we can prevent those outbreaks from becoming very large with this kind of a toolbox.”
Lamont said the nearly 50-member advisory group will be disbanded after Wednesday because they have done the tough work of putting together the various metrics his administration will use as it progresses with the various phases. A Boston-based consultant has also been hired as part of the state’s participation in a seven-state regional coordination.
“These are folks, amazing volunteers, who I would say in many cases over 100 hours a week, back and forth, late at night, emails, texts, Zoom, and I prevailed upon them to do this,” Lamont said of the advisory group. “I think this is probably a good time to turn that page, although we’ve gotten to know each other very well. And Zeke and Scott won’t be able to hide and neither will a lot of the friends I’ve made on the reopening committee. Many of them are going to stay actively involved.”
On Monday, a new executive order listed June 20 as a date to possibly open movie theaters and gyms, while allowing for large gatherings in excess of the current five-person limit. But Lamont said the date is merely a benchmark and all future phases will depend on how the first works.
“What we’re going to do is take May 20, take a look out two or three weeks, see how we’re doing against our different metrics, see if people are following the protocols and make some determinations about some of the phase two openings, and give people some notice,” Lamont said. Metrics include declines in hospitalizations, as well as decreasing percentages of COVID-19 infections compared to the total number of people tested.
Lamont reiterated that June 1 will be the day that hair salons and barbershops are allowed to open again.
On April 8, in honor of state residents who died, Lamont ordered that state flags be flown at half-staff. On that date, 58 deaths were reported and the statewide total was 335. More than 10 times that number have now died from COVID-19-related causes.
Lamont said he’s learned a lot over the two months the state has shut down a portion of its economy in attempt to save lives. He said he tried to get the “best and brightest” to help the state cope with the crisis, which pushed hundreds of thousands of people to unemployment. He described himself as “cautiously confident” going into Wednesday.
He pointed to the order to raise the flags.
“That does not mean that some guy is hanging up the ‘mission accomplished’ banner, but it does mean that if you guys stay disciplined, focused on what we’ve got to do, make sure you wear the masks, listen to what Scott and Zeke said,” Lamont said. “I think we’re going to turn the corner on May 20 and be able to to get through this summer together as a state.”