Connecticut restaurants and retail outlets will be allowed to operate at full capacity with masks and distancing on March 19, Gov. Ned Lamont said in a press conference Thursday, where he laid out a significant loosening of pandemic restrictions.
Lamont announced the elimination of capacity limits for restaurants, libraries, museums, aquariums, gyms, stores, offices, personal services and houses of worship.
He emphasized that all of these businesses will still be beholden to mask mandates, six feet of spacing requirements, and cleaning protocols. Stores and restaurants are currently capped at half capacity indoors, and restaurants can seat eight people at most per table with six feet between parties.
“I think Connecticut has earned it,” Lamont said. “It’s been tough and people have been frustrated. It feels good that we’re able to do this, and good that we’ve been slowly reopening since May 20 and we really haven’t had to turn back. I hope to God that we don’t have to turn back this time.”
Movie theaters and performing arts venues were excluded from the rollback, and will remain at 50 percent capacity. Indoor social gatherings will still be capped at 25 people, and bars will remain closed. The 11 PM curfews for restaurants, entertainment and events at venues will also stay in place. Lamont said the decision to keep the curfew was based on feedback from municipal leaders, who told him that they often can’t tell if a restaurant is at 50 or 70 percent capacity, but it is much easier to enforce a curfew.
This rollback comes at a moment when states like Mississippi and Texas are eliminating mask mandates, garnering a public rebuke from President Joe Biden, who said lifting restrictions was “neanderthal thinking.” Lamont distanced Connecticut’s decision from those states throughout his press conference.
“We’re keeping the mask mandate, and it’s probably the most important thing you can do,” Lamont said. “This is not Texas. This is not Mississippi. This is Connecticut. We have much lower infection rates than those maskless states.”
Connecticut’s travel advisory has also been transitioned from a mandate to a guidance, so the travel restrictions requiring travelers to quarantine after arriving from nearly any state have become optional.
COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations have also been declining since the beginning of the year. On Thursday, the state reported a positivity rate of 1.86 percent, with a seven-day positivity rate of 2.27 percent, the lowest since late October. Connecticut’s coronavirus positivity rate has been declining since the start of 2021, hovering between two and four percent since early February.
More than one million vaccine doses have been administered, with nearly three quarters of those 75 years or older already vaccinated with at least one dose. Nearly 60 percent of those between 65 and 74 years old have received at least one dose of the vaccine, along with 17 percent of those between 55 and 64 years old, a group that only just became eligible on Monday.
Richard Martinello, director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Hospital, said that while he is encouraged by the vaccine rollout and current overall virus rates in Connecticut, starting to reopen now could set us back.
“I’m not going to change my behavior, and I’m not going to be going back to restaurants quite yet,” Martinello said, saying his preference would be waiting at least another month before reopening, especially with increasing numbers of cases of the UK variant in the state.
Jody Terranova, a Hartford pediatrician and vaccine advocate for the Connecticut chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that if the governor wants to focus on school reopening, loosening other restrictions should wait.
“Safely opening the schools does rely on having community spread under control,” Terranova said. “We are currently at a much better place with community spread than we were over the past few months, but one could argue that we shouldn’t open schools and loosen restrictions on gatherings and restaurants at the same time. If loosening restrictions leads to an increase in community spread, it could impact susceptibility in schools.”
Emphasizing the elimination of capacity limits at restaurants does obscure the reality that few restaurants can operate at full capacity while maintaining six feet of distance between tables, a fact the governor’s office does not deny. Still, they hope the message sent by reopening encourages consumers to get back into restaurants.
“Some of this is around consumer confidence,” said David Lehman, commissioner of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development. “As we see vaccinations go up and virus transmission and hospitalizations go down, the consumer is going to be more confident and more willing to go to that restaurant.”
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, also sees messaging around restaurant safety as a good outcome even if restaurants cannot actually take advantage of full capacity.
“Because of the six feet of spacing, most restaurants are probably looking at 60, maybe 70 percent capacity,” Dolch said. “But it’s more about how consumers take that. Everything about our industry is consumer confidence, and I hope consumers see this as another step to feel safe about dining out.”
For Shiran Nicholson, president of the Connecticut Events Industry Coalition, even just the announcement of potential relaxing of restrictions “got the phones ringing again.”
“When the governor extended the emergency order, clients were freaking out, saying we’re never going to be reopened, and cancelling events for the summer and fall,” Nicholson said. “This announcement will help preserve events for later in the year and help people understand that we are on the path to being open again.”