Gov. Ned Lamont announced on Tuesday that he will allow municipalities with high numbers of COVID cases to choose whether to rollback reopening from phase three to phase two — a notable change from his earlier insistence that coronavirus policies and restrictions should be kept to a statewide level.
The governor signed an executive order authorizing the change after announcing a 2.4 percent positivity rate for the state, the highest since June.
“Six months ago, when I said ‘Let’s work on a statewide basis,’ I didn’t want some communities saying ‘My bars can be open’ and others not,” Lamont said in a press briefing on Thursday. “We are never allowing some [municipalities] to open up widely and others not, but we are allowing others to be more strict if they want to be.”
As part of this change, the state Department of Health has formulated a new system color-coding municipalities based on their daily reported cases of COVID per 100,000 residents. Municipalities in the “red” category, defined as having more than 15 cases per 100,000 per day, are allowed to return to phase two if the local government deems it necessary.
Residents who live in “red” areas are also advised to cancel or postpone public events and indoor gatherings, stay inside the house and consider distance learning.
As of Thursday, 11 municipalities across the state met this standard. Nine are located in southeastern Connecticut. They include Norwich, New London, East Lyme, Sprague, Montville, Griswold, Canterbury, Preston and Windham.
At present, regional health officials don’t believe that rolling back to phase two is the best option.
Stephen Mansfield, director of health in the Ledge Light Health District, which includes the “red” areas of New London and East Lyme, wrote in a letter to Mike Passero, mayor of New London, that he would not recommend restricting gatherings based on individual town metrics.
Mansfield said that Connecticut’s population is so small that the rates of change would be “too unstable” to provide any clear guidance.
“It is my position that restricting gathering size in a small geographical area like the City of New London will not have a significant impact on the rate of transmission in our communities,” wrote Mansfield.
New London currently reports a rate of 46.9 cases per 100,000, and 177 cases between September 27 and October 10.
Patrick McCormick, director of the UNCAS Health District, which provides regional health services to five of the eleven “red alert” towns, said that he agreed with Mansfield.
Mayor Peter Nystrom of Norwich also said that reverting to phase two would have little impact on the city. According to Nystom, most downtown businesses and restaurants in Norwich are so small that they can’t open to 75 percent capacity and still maintain social distancing. The casinos, he said, had chosen to remain at 25 percent capacity.
Norwich is currently reporting a COVID rate of 50 cases per 100,000, with 274 new cases from September 27 to October 10.
Nystrom said that he didn’t believe the municipalities should make the choice of whether or not to open. That decision, he said, belonged with the Governor’s Office. Nystrom also warned that labeling towns “red,” would create negative feelings within a community.
“It’s undermining consumer confidence, which is already weak,” he said.
Nystrom also said that he wished the Governor’s Office had warned him ahead of time that the city would be placed in the red category.
“It really caught us off guard,” Nystrom said.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said that labeling Norwich a “red alert” area had caused an almost immediate decrease in people going to the Foxwoods casino.
“Whether that was the intent of the labeling, that is the outcome,” she said.
In his letter, Mansfield said that it would be more helpful to encourage people to wear masks and socially distance, and to make sure that testing was free and readily available.
Mark Nickerson, First Selectman of East Lyme, also said that he wasn’t planning to roll back to phase two, since the majority of infections come from small, intimate gatherings rather than large events.
East Lyme reported 40 cases in the two-week period in which the data was collected.
“We have to try to push the messaging of ‘small groups don’t work’,” Nickerson said.
Nystrom also said that he believed the spike of infections in Norwich was due to similar gatherings when people were not social distancing. Norwich has cancelled its Halloween activities, and removed hoops and netting from basketball courts to discourage gatherings of young people.
“We are encouraging people to put their guard back up,” he said.