Phase 3 of reopening on hold

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday announced a pause in Connecticut’s reopening because of coronavirus disease outbreaks in other states.

The decision means bars that were initially slated to open in mid-July will remain closed for now, and increases in capacity limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings and events will be postponed.

Lamont said opening bars and allowing larger groups of people to congregate is too risky at this time. He called crowded bars particularly hazardous to public health.

“Look, I like a beer at the bar as much as the next person,” Lamont said. “I know how frustrating this can be, but right now with this pandemic flaring up in a majority of other states this is not the time to take a risk.”

The governor is not dialing up any of the previous coronavirus restrictions that he has relaxed since May 20. Most businesses have been allowed to open back up to the public, subject to general and industry-specific reopening rules, including capacity limits.

Under the reopening plan, the capacity limit for indoor private gatherings was supposed to double to 50 people in mid-July, and the maximum for outdoor private gatherings was set to increase from 150 people to 250, including high school graduations.

Outdoor event venues such as amphitheaters and race tracks have been operating at 25% of fire code capacity, plus social distancing requirements. This limit was also supposed to double in the third reopening stage.

Also, the 500-person limit for organized outdoor events such as fireworks displays, concerts and plays in municipal parks that were due to expire will be continued instead.

“We’re just erring on the side of caution,” Lamont said.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT MONDAY was not unexpected because Lamont stated last week that he was weighing a pause after seeing COVID-19 cases flare up in states that had reopened earlier.

Confirmed cases are on the rise in 41 out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia, and the percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus is increasing in 39 states.

In Connecticut, there were 256 confirmed cases since Friday, and, while the percentage of positive tests went up, the positivity rate Monday was 0.7% based the latest rolling seven-day average.

“What you have to know is the numbers continue to trend in the right direction,” Lamont said.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 dropped by 26 patients over the weekend to 69 statewide on Monday. The governor cautioned this number is likely to tick up again. Hospitalizations recently fell below 100 for the first time since late March.

The Department of Public Health also received 24,692 test results since Friday. There have been 522,385 diagnostic tests reported, including some multiple tests involving the same patient or specimen.

There were three more deaths reported over the weekend. There have been 3,466 confirmed deaths of people who tested positive for COVID-19 around the time of the death, and another 872 probable deaths.

THE NAUGATUCK VALLEY HEALTH DISTRICT reported Monday there have been 382 confirmed cases in Naugatuck and 53 in Beacon Falls. There have been 36 confirmed deaths associated with coronavirus and three probable deaths in Naugatuck, according to the health district, and none in Beacon Falls.

As of July 2, the Chesprocott Health District reported there have been 72 cases in Prospect and no coronavirus-related deaths in town.

ONE LESS-THAN-STELLAR STATISIC is the response rate to inquiries from contact trace investigators trying to track down people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Lamont said 96% of the confirmed coronavirus cases are contacted by telephone, email or text within 48 hours of identification, but only 47% of the affected individuals are responding to the 885 contact tracers.

“If we can get 100% of the people to take our calls, to take our texts, we would be in a much better position to contain this virus,” he said.

Contact tracing is a critical component of the state’s response to COVID-19. The purpose of the voluntary statewide program is to identify the contacts of people exposed to the coronavirus so they can get tested or isolate themselves to limit community spread.

The effort involves the Department of Public Health, the 64 local health departments and 120 qualified, trained volunteers. The state and Microsoft partnered to develop a contract-tracing platform.

The response rate in Connecticut is consistent with the few jurisdictions that are publicly reporting this data such as New York City and the state of Massachusetts, said Josh Geballe, the chief operating officer of the Lamont administration.

He said the low response rate is due mostly to calls, texts or emails going unanswered, but there are also some people who refuse to cooperate when contacted. He said there are options available to local health departments to require participation if there is a threat of widespread exposure.

LAMONT WAS UNSURE when he might push ahead with the third reopening phase, but indicated that he may have something more definitive to say in the near future.

“We usually change phases every month or so, and we usually try to give notice at least a couple of weeks in advance, so I think that would still be more or less our time frame,” he said.

Lamont started to gradually ease restrictions on businesses and other activities on May 20, and he later moved up the second reopening phase a few days to June 17.

Lamont said he is inclined to maintain the industry-specific capacity limits, and the general limit of 50% capacity for businesses that have been allowed to reopen.

On bars, the governor plans to see what other states do regarding their drinking establishments.

“Let’s wait and see. We’ll be looking around the rest of the country, we’ll be looking at our neighboring states to see if we reach a point where we think we can do it safely,” Lamont said.

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this report.