Ned Lamont’s crash course on a pandemic and a president
“Everybody’s telling me that,” Lamont said Thursday, speaking in a telephone interview before his conference call with the president. “I’ve got to figure this out. I hope it’s the camera, not me. I feel fine.”
Lamont wakes at 4 a.m., a function of age and happenstance, not intent. He reads and returns emails, then tries to drift back to sleep until 6:30 a.m.
“I’m always amazed, the number of people my age that might be up at 4,” said Lamont, who turned 66 on Jan. 3. “If you ever want to email me at 4, I’m there. Just don’t call me.”
Most days now are about managing the hopes and expectations of a state of 3.5 million that he knows is growing impatient staying at home, waiting for a surge of COVID-19 cases to crest and begin to recede.
If you ever want to email me at 4, I’m there. Just don’t call me.”
A 14-day decline in new cases and hospitalizations is one of the milestones his advisers deem necessary before he begins to loosen the escalating restrictions he’s imposed on commerce. He began on March 12 with a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people.
New cases on Thursday totaled 1,129.
He tries to do local radio a few times a week. On Thursday, he phoned WINY-AM in Putnam, a small town on the Rhode Island border with just six confirmed cases. COVID-19 has stepped lightly in eastern Connecticut, as far as the testing shows.
“Everybody’s getting a little spring fever. Everybody in the southern part of the state knows we have to social distance a little more,” Lamont said. “But maybe folks in the eastern part of the state are saying, ‘Hey, c’mon, not much happening here.’ ”
A tricky relationship
Harder to manage has been his relationship with an unpredictable president.
On March 29, Donald J. Trump stunned the governors of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey by mentioning he might quarantine the tri-state New York metropolitan area by day’s end. That was a Saturday.
“I had no idea what it meant. I’m not sure the White House knew what it meant. You talk to the chief of staff, and it’s somewhere between a lockdown and a voluntary stay at home program,” Lamont said. “If we didn’t have that resolved on Sunday night, holy hell could have broken loose in the markets on Monday morning in the financial capital of the world, New York City.”
Trump instead issued a voluntary travel advisory to be enforced at the discretion of the governors.
The president told governors on Monday he had total authority over reopening their states for business — the clear implication being they were too slow in taking the limits off the economy. On a conference call Thursday, Trump reversed course and told the governors, “You’re going to call your own shots.”
On Monday night, interviewers on MSNBC and CNN teed up Lamont with the same provocative video of the president expressing his novel view of federalism. Lamont uncharacteristically took the bait on CNN, accusing the president of tossing verbal hand grenades.
The governor’s more typical response is bland.
Our congressional delegation can put on the boxing gloves. I need to get this state through a crisis.”
He complains that the federal government could have responded faster, then quickly pivots to his “constructive relationship” with the coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence and advised by Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci.
“I’ve got to leave the door open. I’ve got to work with people,” said Lamont, a Democrat who endorsed Trump’s presumptive opponent, Joe Biden, in July. “Our congressional delegation can put on the boxing gloves. I need to get this state through a crisis.”
If nothing else, the president has been a catalyst for regional coalitions of governors, with one in the northeast organized by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, another on the west coast and, more recently, a group in the midwest.
The trick with Trump has been to separate the signal from the noise. “If you get rid of the noise at the top, there are a lot of constructive conversations going on,” Lamont said.
Lamont said he learns by watching Cuomo. Like the president, Cuomo is a son of Queens, N.Y., and a student of tabloid bravado. There are two channels to watch in the jousting between Cuomo and Trump — public and private.
“Andrew, let’s face it, Andrew talks to the president all the time. And then we connect sometimes with the president via Andrew,” Lamont said. “Like Trump, he’ll beat you up in public and have a very civil and constructive conversation privately. Andrew has a lot more experience with that than I do.”
Lamont knows some in Connecticut see him as a satellite in Cuomo’s orbit. He shrugs off the suggestion that regional coordination on closing bars, restaurants and shopping malls is wrong-headed.
“I feel the same way about opening things up,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of the criticism. ‘Hey, don’t worry about other states.’ Or even more, ‘Hey, let Putnam open up, and if Hartford wants to stay shut, God bless ‘em.’ Then you have people from Hartford go to Putnam and getting a beer. And the pandemic gets another life of its own.
“I think about those things a lot.”
A virus increasingly on the radar
The coronavirus has been on Lamont’s radar since January, not initially in a big way. The first public statement by his office came on Jan. 27, a week after seven influenza-associated deaths. Lamont reported that two residents had been tested for the coronavirus. (Both eventually found to be negative.)
A month later, the state announced that the novel coronavirus was deemed an illness that must be reported to the Department of Public Health, a step to enhance tracking.
“Although we have no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Connecticut, we must be prepared for any situation and that is why we are continuing to take all necessary precautions to protect Connecticut from this dangerous virus,” Lamont said in a press release on Feb. 26. “This is serious, and we are working with our health care system and schools to ensure that our efforts are coordinated and people are prepared.”
On March 3, Lamont and Attorney General William Tong invited reporters to watch them dine at Shu, a Chinese restaurant in West Hartford. It was a gesture meant to combat the racism directed at Chinese merchants over the origin of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. There were not yet any warnings about social distancing.
The next day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised anyone returning from China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea to self-monitor in their homes for 14 days upon returning to the United States.
Lamont’s life changed on March 6 with the diagnosis of a New York resident who worked at Danbury Hospital. He declared a public health emergency on March 10, mild restrictions on public gatherings on March 12 and broad closures of non-essential businesses on March 20.
“You can’t get too far ahead, but you have to lead,” he said.
He now wants people to wear masks when they are in stores or cannot avoid passing within six feet of another person. He was pressed on enforcement at a briefing, but Lamont said such questions missed the point.
“I can issue a lot of these executive orders and set a direction, but really they are self-enforced, aren’t they?” Lamont said. “Remember, I had given guidance you really ought to be closing schools. And I’d say the vast majority, 85 or 90 percent of them, had closed before I had to issue a firm executive order to make sure the rest of them closed. I think we tried to lead. We tried to lead through guidance.”
His pandemic routine is different from his previous 14 months in office. For the first time since becoming governor in January 2019, he and his wife of 36 years are living under the same roof, 24/7.
Annie Huntress Lamont is a venture capitalist who had been working during the week in Greenwich, where they raised their three children and still own a home. Now, she telecommutes from the Executive Residence in the West End of Hartford.
His kitchen cabinet
Lamont has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and an MBA from Yale, but he frequently mentions that his undergraduate major was sociology.
“I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. So I started reaching out to the best health care minds I can — Annie Lamont is one of them,” he said. His wife’s specialty is health care, and her circle of connections is wide.
The governor has created an advisory group to help him make the decision about when to ease the closures. It is led by Indra Nooyi, a Yale classmate and fellow Greenwich resident who recently retired as the chief executive of Pepsi, and Dr. Albert Ko, a Yale epidemiologist.
Others on the panel include Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist and the brother of Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff. More recently, he’s been a partner in Annie Lamont’s firm, Oak HC/FT, which specializes in health technology investments.
Kevin Rennie, the former Republican lawmaker who writes a column for The Hartford Courant, chided the governor for not disclosing Emanuel’s business relationship with Annie Lamont in an otherwise complimentary assessment of the governor’s handling the crisis.
I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know.”
The governor said he sees nothing wrong with tapping into his network of business, academic and health contacts to seek guidance.
“These are just advisers. We’re picking the very best brains, just like a kitchen cabinet,” Lamont said. “This is just an informal advisory board, and that’s the way it should stay.”
Another on the panel is Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration during the first two years of the Trump administration. Lamont called Gottlieb a friend of friends.
“I think he knew of Annie’s work in health care,” Lamont said. “I reached out to him a couple of times. The third time, the Westport schools had shut down. He’s in Westport and his kids weren’t going to school. And we developed a friendship then. It’s a totally informal relationship, by the way. But I reach out to him for advice.”
Lamont said he believes he is doing exactly what Connecticut wants. Or at least what it needs. That means listening to Fauci, with whom he has consulted, the advisory group he has assembled on the reopening, his senior aides at the State Capitol and the public-health officials on the state’s payroll.
There is evidence the social-distancing orders have slowed the spread of the virus, keeping the state’s hospitals from being overwhelmed. The rate of hospitalizations have been slowing, and the 1,926 patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are well within the system’s capacity.
“We worried about a surge overwhelming our hospitals and what that would have meant in terms of death and destruction, and we didn’t let that happen,” Lamont said. “I’m proud that hasn’t happened. And it won’t happen if we maintain our discipline.”
The final call on lifting restrictions will be his.
“But I’m going to listen to folks who know a lot more than I do,” Lamont said, “and they are going to give me some strong recommendations in 10 days.”
After all, he reminded, he’s just a sociology major.
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