Beach goers soak up the sun at Hammonasset Beach State Park Friday to kick off the Memorial Day weekend. At 7:30 a.m. there were 200 cars lined up waiting for the park to open and it was closed when they reached capacity at 12:15 p.m. according to a park ranger. Visitors were encouraged to leave 15 feet between the next group of people in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cloe Poisson /
Beach goers soak up the sun at Hammonasset Beach State Park Friday to kick off the Memorial Day weekend. At 7:30 a.m. there were 200 cars lined up waiting for the park to open and it was closed when they reached capacity at 12:15 p.m. according to a park ranger. Visitors were encouraged to leave 15 feet between the next group of people in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cloe Poisson /

As the state headed into the Memorial Day weekend Friday, the number of people hospitalized in Connecticut for COVID-19 continued to decline — a “very positive” sign as this state’s economy starts to reopen, medical experts said.

“All the numbers and all the data points toward increased [hospital] capacity,” Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford Healthcare’s chief clinical officer, said. Kumar said increasing hospital capacity means the state will be in a much better position should Connecticut experience another coronavirus surge.

But medical experts warned that a failure to continue social distancing could quickly lead to another rise in COVID-19 infections.

“We are holding our breath and hoping, that as the state starts to reopen, our numbers of COVID patients will remain low,” said Dr. Virginia Bieluch, chief of infectious diseases at the Hospital of Central Connecticut.

Friday’s lovely weather sent lots of Connecticut residents heading for state parks and beaches. Parking lots at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison were closed to more visitors before 1 p.m. Friday because of the crowds. At least four other state parks were also closed off Friday afternoon to prevent overcrowding. They included Wadsworth Falls in Middletown, Rocky Neck in East Lyme, Beach Pond in Voluntown, and Harkness Memorial in Waterford.

A group of friends hang out at Hammonasset Beach State Park Friday to kick off the Memorial Day weekend. Hammonasset is Connecticut most popular state park and officials have been limiting the number of people allowed there and into other state parks, allowing more room for social distancing. Cloe Poisson /

State health officials reported Friday the number of patients hospitalized across Connecticut with COVID-19 had dropped by 76 from the previous day, down to 740. This state’s coronavirus death toll increased by 55, bringing the total number of people killed by the disease to at least 3,637. An additional 5,881 people were tested for the disease since Thursday, with 432 testing positive for coronavirus.

Hartford Healthcare officials said the total number of COVID-19 patients in all its facilities Friday was 381, and Kumar said that was significantly lower than during the pandemic’s peak last month.

Dr. Daniel Gottschall, vice president of medical affairs for the Fairfield County region, said St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport now has just 47 coronavirus patients. At the pandemic’s peak in Fairfield County around April 19, Gottschall said St. Vincent’s was treating 145  patients for the disease.

Gottschall said Friday marked the first day since the onset of the pandemic that St. Vincent’s was at full operational status for routine non-coronavirus operations and procedures.

Bieluch said Connecticut’s infectious disease specialists have learned an enormous amount about how to deal with the coronavirus. “There is still a vast amount of information we need to learn,” she said. “This knowledge base is expanding at record speed and will continue to expand.”

But Bieluch warned again that, “without a vaccine, it is possible we will see a resurgence of this infection in the fall.”

Officials at the Yale School of Public Health Friday estimated that the number of people dying from coronavirus could rise to more than 8,100 deaths if people in this state “resume normal activities and contacts too quickly.”

According to the mathematical model created by Associate Professor Forrest Crawford and two post-doctoral researchers, Olga Morozova and Zehand Li, a second wave of the virus could result that would be more deadly than the first round of the pandemic.

“If contact rates return quickly to levels seen in early March, the number of new cases could rise dramatically over the summer,” Crawford said.

Trump: Houses of worship are ‘essential’

U.S. Navy photo

Gov. Ned Lamont had returned U.S. flags to full staff three days ago, ending the mourning of victims of COVID-19, but Friday President Donald Trump Friday ordered U.S. flags to be lowered to half-staff through sundown Sunday as another mark of respect for victims of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump also on Friday commanded America’s governors to reopen churches and other places of worship shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, threatening to “override” the state leaders if they refused to follow his directive.

Speaking at a previously unannounced news briefing at the White House, the president declared “houses of worship, churches, synagogues and mosques” to be “essential places that provide essential services.”

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” Trump told reporters. “It’s not right. So, I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

“Places of worship in Connecticut have never been ordered to close throughout this pandemic,” David Bednarz, a spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont, said in response to the president’s statement. “Some voluntarily chose to close to protect their members.”

Blumenthal: Release pregnant inmates

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., calling on Attorney General William Barr and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to release eligible medically vulnerable prison inmates and incarcerated pregnant women.

The letter comes after the death of Andrea Circle Bear, the first pregnant woman incarcerated in a federal prison to die from COVID-19. The message asks the Bureau of Prisons to release eligible people to home confinement, and work with federal public defenders and other organizations that provide legal services to federal inmates to ensure they have access to a lawyer.

The letter also follows a federal judge ordering the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury to expedite the release of inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Prior to the judge’s ruling in response to a lawsuit, officials had granted zero inmates compassionate release and 21 people to home confinement, despite two separate orders from Barr to release as many eligible medically vulnerable people as possible to protect them from the virus.

New federal grant to create pandemic-related jobs

A $2.33 million federal grant has been awarded to the Connecticut Department of Labor to create temporary disaster-relief jobs for people who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and others impacted by the economic shutdown.

“During these difficult times, this funding from the U.S. Department of Labor will help our state get back to business even more quickly by providing jobs that have been created as a result of the pandemic, as well as the necessary training,” state Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said.

State officials expect the disaster-relief jobs will fall into several categories: cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting public facilities; delivering food, medicine and other supplies to quarantined people and vulnerable populations; and health care-related jobs to provide support to sick and vulnerable people.

Federal aid available to Connecticut farmers hurt by pandemic

Connecticut farmers who have suffered serious losses as a result of the pandemic will now be able to apply for financial aid through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program,  Gov. Lamont and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2, said Friday.

The program is aimed at providing financial help to farmers who have been hit with a 5-percent-or-greater price decline for their products or who had losses because of supply chain problems resulting from the pandemic.

The Connecticut aid is part of a federal program that will pay up to $16 billion in direct payments to farmers who lost money due to the coronavirus crisis.

Eligible agricultural products include non-specialty crops, wool, livestock, dairy and specialty crops such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and mushrooms.

USDA officials will begin accepting applications from Connecticut farmers as of May 26.

Arguments in COVID-19 prison case delayed

A federal judge delayed oral arguments in the ACLU of Connecticut’s COVID-19 class action lawsuit. The arguments were originally scheduled for Friday morning.

“The court has encouraged the parties in this case to come to the table to negotiate, with the judge acting as arbiter. We have a responsibility to our clients – all incarcerated people in the state – to fight with everything we have for releases and other protections from COVID-19 for them,” said Dan Barrett, ACLU of Connecticut’s legal director. “If negotiations prove the quickest way to move people out of harm’s way from COVID-19 in this life-or-death crisis, we will pursue them. If not, oral arguments in the case are scheduled for June 1.”

The lawsuit calls on the state to release all incarcerated people age 50 and older — there were 2,983 people behind bars age 46 or older as of April 1 — and those with severe medical conditions that put them at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. The suit’s five incarcerated plaintiffs represent Connecticut’s sentenced and pretrial populations.

Lamont reminder: Apply for aid for winter heating bills

Lamont urged Connecticut residents who need help paying last winter’s home heating bills to apply for state assistance before June 1, which is now the extended application deadline for the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program.

“Even though we are well into spring, we want to remind everyone that there’s still time to apply for assistance to pay for your home heating bills for the last winter season,” Lamont said.

Families with incomes of up to $36,171 for individuals and up to $69,599 for a household of four are eligible to apply for help with heating bills during the period from Nov. 13, 2019 through April 30, 2020.

was a reporter for the Hartford Courant, the State Capitol bureau chief for the New Haven Register, and has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Connecticut Magazine and other publications.

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