Steep Fines Met with Mixed Response Before the Holidays in Connecticut

Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order yesterday increasing fines from $500 to $10,000 for COVID-related violations which include exceeding capacity limits, failing to wear masks and operating after the 10 p.m curfew. The steeper fines — which go into effect at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow — were met with a mixed response from local leaders contacted by CT Examiner.

“We want to do everything we can to mitigate the further spread of this virus while avoiding the implementation of more restrictions or lockdowns on our already hard-hit economy and small businesses,” the Governor explained in a press release.

According to the state Department of Consumer Protection, two restaurants recently had their liquor licenses suspended for violating COVID rules – Dixwell Social Lounge in Hamden and Legend’s Sports Bar in Bristol. In both cases, the businesses were alleged to be serving alcohol only and operating after curfew. A restaurant called The Hungry Tiger in Manchester was also shut down after multiple alleged instances of non-compliance. 

In the news release, Lamont said that he was sharply increasing fines “as the result of feedback he has received from municipal leaders, public health officials, and people from within the business community.”

Mixed responses

Tony Sheriden, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said that he was supportive of the governor’s decision.

“It’s a severe fine and the business community should pay attention to it,” he said. “We have to get this [virus] behind us.”

Chris DiPentima, executive director at the Connecticut Business and Industries Association, said that he hoped the new regulations would be a deterrent to the few “bad apples” that have broken the rules. This way, he said, the governor would not have to place further restrictions on all businesses. 

But not everyone thinks the new fine will have a positive effect.

Pete Nystrom, the mayor of Norwich, called the new fines “extreme.” Nystrom said that the increased penalties send the message that Connecticut is not a friendly place to do business.

Nystrom said he was not aware of any businesses in Norwich being fined over non-compliance. According to Nystrom, the town hasn’t had any large superspreader events, and while he has received a call here and there about people not wearing masks, he said none of the complaints rose to the level of even a $1,000 fine.

“I was really surprised to have the increase be so drastic,” said Sheri Cote, president of the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce. “I think our business community would comply regardless of the fee.”

Cote said she thought many businesses might not even be able to afford a $10,000 fine. She said she didn’t believe the fines would do anything to increase consumer confidence.

“I understand where the governor is coming from, no one wants to see us go into a full lockdown,” she said. “[But] the increase and the fine is more than it should be.” 

Regional health districts weigh in

According to the Office of the Governor, fines can be issued by the regional health districts or municipal employees, including town managers, with the help of local police departments.

Patrick McCormick, director of health at UNCAS health district said his district had not issued any COVID-related fines since the state of emergency was declared in the spring.

McCormick did say, however, that he had received complaints about large numbers of people gathering at bars without masks on. He said the majority of spreader events he’s heard about have happened in family or social gatherings, some of which do take place in restaurants or bars.

He said the fines show solidarity with the local businesses who are following the rules. He also said that he’s hopeful this will catch the most “egregious” offenders and stop any spread that might come from social gatherings in bars. He said that while the virus can spread at private gatherings in people’s homes, those gatherings tend to be smaller because of the space limitations.  

Data from the state Department of Public Health shows that as of Nov. 9, the state has identified 69 COVID clusters — two or more confirmed positive COVID cases — being linked to a single event. Twenty of the 69 were traced back to restaurants.

Stephen Mansfield, director of health at Ledge Light Health District, said that, like in UNCAS, they have received complaints, but have not issued any fines. He said that generally, after they make a site visit to an establishment, the business becomes compliant without the need for a fine. Although the local health departments were not involved with the Governor’s decision to increase the fine, he said the fines were “a good tool” to have.

Both directors emphasized the importance of educating businesses about the COVID enforcement rules. McCormick said they  have asked the police, the fire department and municipal authorities to issue reminders to businesses that have been the target of complaints, and that the health district was also performing routine inspections in which health officials reminded people about the COVID regulations.  

Individuals can also be fined $250 for attending or $500 for holding gatherings that exceed capacity limits, $100 for not wearing masks in public places and up to $500 for not adhering to the state’s travel advisory.

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