Opinion: “A Path Forward for Connecticut”

Through these challenging times I have been inspired by the resilience, ingenuity and compassion of our eastern Connecticut communities. Our shared sense of purpose and commitment to helping those in need is why I strap on a mask and go out every day, delivering masks, supplies and support to senior centers, health care facilities, small businesses and families.

It is why I’m working across party lines as a member of the state task force to combat this crisis, keep the public informed, help individuals and small businesses navigate options, safeguard our communities and deliver much needed relief.

It’s why I led the successful charge to suspend the tax on plastic bags in grocery stores in response to concerns about the safety of reusable bags from grocery workers. And why I am working to expand coverage for telehealth solutions.

As we prepare for the next phase of our response to COVID-19, there are areas that will require greater collaboration from the governor with the General Assembly, private sector, municipal leaders and others in order to strengthen and expedite our recovery, while keeping our communities safe.

Our dual objectives to restore commerce and keep our communities safe do not need to be and should not be viewed as fundamentally at odds with each other.

To pursue both ends will require clarity, bipartisan collaboration and common-sense action. I have spoken with dozens of constituents, workers, small business owners, non-profits, health care experts and more every single day, and these are a few of the issues that have been raised which should be addressed:

Too many Connecticut workers, families and small businesses are struggling, we cannot wait on New York, the federal government and other states to provide leadership or a path forward for Connecticut. Small businesses built over the course of decades, or even generations, face unprecedented challenges to staying afloat. Workers, whose families rely on them, are struggling. We need a detailed plan and sensible benchmarks organized on a regional basis for emerging from the current lockdown, without putting people at risk — and we need it quickly. This will require our state to lead, with plans for testing, response and sensible precautions.

This plan must take into account the different characteristics and realities on the ground on a regional basis. The best timing and path forward to reopen Greenwich are not likely going to be the same as they are in Stonington.

Connecticut must swiftly lay out a path forward, that reflects regional considerations and input from medical experts and the business community, so people can plan their lives and have greater optimism for the future.

A plan for reopening must also be a plan for long-term recovery that empowers our small businesses to roar back and prosper. Connecticut must acknowledge that small businesses will be the backbone of our economic recovery and that bold changes must be made to improve our state’s dreadful business climate. Without dedicated action to boost small businesses when we reopen, Connecticut risks falling permanently further behind other states or lagging in our recovery.

A key element of this plan must be safe and sensible regulatory relief. A thorough review should be conducted to identify and ease regulations that are burdensome to businesses and not necessary to the health and safety of our communities and environment.

The state should also reduce fees and licensing charges, as well as empower agencies to make common sense decisions to streamline regulations. Permit applications should be returned with a decision within no more than 90 days — or automatically granted.

The state must also work with our financial institutions and federal representatives to ensure federal funding for small businesses relief actually makes it to local small businesses — and does not get diverted into the coffers of large businesses that do not need relief.

Tourism is vital to the Connecticut economy and a plan for recovery must include support and a path forward for this industry. Tourism supports thousands of jobs in eastern Connecticut and generates millions of dollars in tax revenue for municipalities and the state. Connecticut must have a clear plan to allow and promote safe tourism as soon as possible — and help small businesses with clear and reasonable guidance.

The state must also be prepared to invest in this industry that will be particularly hard-hit by the current crisis and that is so critical to the economic wellbeing of our communities and to our culture.

Thousands of Connecticut workers are losing their jobs and many more face economic uncertainty. As other states have done, Connecticut needs to defer $353 million in scheduled state employee pay increases. With so many Connecticut resident facing economic uncertainty and in the face of a crisis that will exacerbate Connecticut’s fiscal woes in ways that have not yet been measured, it is simply not the right time to lay out hundreds of millions in pay increases for public sector workers.

The state should offer absolute clarification of health provider COVID-19 liability exemption. We must ensure that well-intended measures do not result in a flood of lawsuits against people trying to do the right thing. Health care workers on the front lines of treating COVID-19 should be exempted from related liability except for gross negligence or willful malfeasance.  

Safely allowing hospitals and surgery centers to resume elective surgeries, if capacity allows, should be a priority to bolster the financial footing of our health care sector. “Elective” surgeries are often important measures for people’s health and they are a key source of revenue for hospitals that may themselves face economic crisis. Maintaining the fiscal stability of our health care system, so they can maintain infrastructure, purchase supplies and pay skilled doctors and nurses. is a component in maintaining the capacity we need to defeat the virus, and can’t be treated as purely an afterthought.

These are just a handful of the many considerations and points of view that must be incorporated into a comprehensive plan to safely re-open Connecticut.

I will continue to work with the administration, lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, municipal leaders, non-profits and small businesses in pursuit of a swift and safe recovery — as well as support and relief for hard-hit workers, families and small businesses.

With the right leadership and a comprehensive, sensible path forward, we will get through these tough times and emerge from this stronger on the other side.

State Sen. Heather Somers
Groton