“Let me just say we live in a great state — and the greatest part of this great state — and I have full confidence that our economy is going to recover here, but we’ll need to take thoughtful and prudent steps in order to do that,” said State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, during a “State Senators’ Update” virtual meeting on Wednesday. “The reason I say that, is I believe the underlying economy to be stronger than the great recession of 2008 and 2009. I think once we get by this health and safety portion of the reopening … [and] have consumer confidence in it, I think the business economy is going to be better.”
Formica, along with State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, spent about an hour speaking and answering questions about reopening the state’s economy, the upcoming special legislative session that they say will focus on police reform and absentee balloting, steps to prevent the return of eastern equine encephalitis and state dollars for tourism marketing. The call was organized by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.
“About 95 percent of the economy is back up but I think we need to increase the number of people, increase the density. This is all predicated on having no resurgence of the virus, but I’d like to see it go back up to what it was on a normal basis, but the governor hasn’t released those details to me or anyone,” said State Sen. Cathy Osten.
“I think the big push is really how do we slowly open up our economy. We need to work on consumer confidence, getting people feeling comfortable going to a restaurant… to go to a store to buy rather than online,” said Somers. “After the Spanish Flu, it took about four years for the economy to come back to where it was because people were still fearful, so we have to work on that in a very intentional and safe way.
Somers said tracking virus numbers, especially hospitalizations, was key to moving forward.
“We have to track the virus because the last thing we want is to open up and then have to go back three steps, so it’s intentional steps forward and hopefully no steps backward,” she said. “I’m looking forward to hopefully opening up Connecticut in a much more aggressive manner as long our numbers stay below three percent.”
To help the economy, phase III of Gov. Lamont’s reopening plan may need to allow for greater numbers of people in public spaces because businesses, especially arts and cultural sites, cannot be profitable or break even at 50 percent capacity levels, said Osten.
“About 95 percent of the economy is back up but I think we need to increase the number of people, increase the density. This is all predicated on having no resurgence of the virus, but I’d like to see it go back up to what it was on a normal basis, but the governor hasn’t released those details to me or anyone,” she said.
Special legislative session
Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to convene a special legislative session in July to focus on police accountability and absentee voting during the pandemic.
Formica said he was interested in a police bill that would create a 13-person, investigatory body that would be completely independent of local and state police departments and the prosecutor’s office, “so that people within their own department don’t investigate within their own departments.” The new group could also review random body camera footage to see that proper processes and procedures were followed.
“There’s no place for racism not only in our state, but our country or the world,” said Formica.
The Constitution of Connecticut guarantees that people can vote by absentee ballot, when they are “absent from the city or town of which they are an inhabitant or because of sickness or physical disability or because of religion,” said Osten.
“The question is [if] someone is concerned about coming into contact with the virus, does that constitute any of those qualifying actions?” Osten said. “I think that’s where it’s suggesting we make it more clear by referencing ‘concern about an illness.’ Personally I’m not afraid of or concerned about fraud with absentee ballots.”
Formica said he would support a “no excuse” absentee ballot.
“I think all of us should be able to vote by absentee ballot, especially this year,” he said.
Formica noted, however, that the state constitution can only be altered by voters. It cannot be changed by the governor, legislature or supreme court.
“That’s where the rub is for this particular conversation because we won’t be able to get that done before fall for the November voting, so we need to find a way that falls within the Constitution and then clarifies the language so that more people can vote by absentee ballot because we want to make sure that people can vote and have the opportunity to vote safely. I think that’s critical for all of us, we stand behind that,” said Formica.
Somers said she had no issues with no-excuse absentee ballots and supported finding ways to make voting easier for the public.
Eastern equine encephalitis
Last fall, eastern equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne illness, killed three people in southeastern Connecticut and shut down parts of the economy.
“The economy stopped in the afternoons. People were closing and a lot of scholastic events were closed. We shut down our outside area at 5 p.m.,” said Formica of his business, Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant in East Lyme. “But the concern has to be around the cold weather that didn’t seem cold enough in the winter to really kill mosquito larvae, which is where we’ll have to attack the EEE. Surface spraying is not as effective as we would hope it to be. We need to get it in the larvae situation and that was 45 days ago.”
State agencies are collaborating to expand mosquito surveillance and have added 16 new trapping sites this summer and the Connecticut River Area Health District is taking preventive action.
“The economy stopped in the afternoons. People were closing and a lot of scholastic events were closed. We shut down our outside area at 5 p.m.,” said State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, of his business, Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant in East Lyme.
Somers said it’s safer to participate in activities outside with COVID-19, but when EEE starts, the message will be to stay indoors.
“We’re suggesting everyone get chickens because they eat a ton of mosquitoes and that really helps keep the numbers down,” Somers said.
Marketing southeastern Connecticut
The Department of Economic and Community Development has indicated it will use $1.2 million to market the state, said Osten.
“I think the number should be closer to $10 million so we can actually market in Boston and New York markets and the Canadian markets to get people to come down here that are within a day’s drive,” she said.
The number should be far higher, said Somers.
“I would like to see a larger amount dedicated for tourism, because as you are all very aware, for every dollar you spend, the minimum is three to seven dollars that comes back in the same or the following year,” said Somers. “I’d like to see $25 million, but that’s a dream, but I think it could go far for our industries in Connecticut.”
Formica said summer was key to the success of many tourism-dependent businesses in the area.
“We’re entering our hospitality high season, if you will, and it’s important that many of the businesses get opened … because a good portion, if not a majority of the revenue generated for their year comes out of the next 10 weeks as we get between Memorial Day and Labor Day and then some of the shoulder season after Labor Day, we’ve been successful in promoting visitors here, so it’s important to kind of move through that to get as many people open as possible and being mindful of safety,” he said.
Formica said that one area hotel he spoke with could be filled next weekend, which could be a positive sign.
“I think that is a positive and a bellwether for the rest of the region. If the hotels are starting to see high occupancy rates then I think that bodes well for retail and food service and all of the other hospitality, our great arts and culture, the museums, art galleries, and all of the things we need to support to get through this. If the people come here then they will go there and it will be helpful to our region and I think that’s important.”