Lamont’s tourism dilemma: screening for COVID could prevent spread and also hurt business
Despite weeks of tough talk and meting out several expensive fines, Gov. Ned Lamont’s coronavirus quarantine policy has a big loophole: it effectively overlooks the thousands of tourists pouring into the state this summer on Connecticut’s roads.
Although Lamont signed an executive order last month mandating that both tourists and Connecticut residents returning from COVID-infested states fill out an online travel advisory form and quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival here – or face a $1,000 fine – the governor did not order the lodging industry to enforce the rules.
That means guests from one of the 33 states currently on Lamont’s list of COVID hot-spots can drive into Connecticut and check into a hotel without filling out the governor’s travel advisory form – or even attesting to being in compliance with the mandate.
“Hotels are not set up to provide that type of enforcement,” said Ginny Kozlowski, executive director of the Connecticut Hotel and Lodging Association, who said businesses feared it would push tourists away. “It would be an unfair burden.”
It’s a burden the Lamont administration has opted not to impose, at least for now.
Hotels are not set up to provide that type of enforcement. It would be an unfair burden.”
That’s because enforcing the quarantine policy across all sectors of the population would weaken the most heavily damaged segment of Connecticut’s economy since the pandemic began: the hospitality sector.
“Lamont is pretty much facing an impossible task,” said University of Connecticut economist Fred Carstensen. “He cannot vigorously enforce the rules without damaging the economy — even though vigorously enforcing the rules would help sustain confidence in the economy. It is an absolute Catch-22.”
Or put another way, if the governor forces tourists to quarantine before they visit Connecticut attractions, many simply won’t come. But if too many visitors carrying the virus criss-cross the state, the low-infection rates Lamont frequently touts could worsen quickly.
Lamont: ‘We’re watching this like a hawk’
Connecticut has made national headlines for consistently maintaining one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the nation.
To keep the numbers low, Lamont and the governors of New York and New Jersey announced a tri-state advisory in late June, asking — but not mandating — that travelers from COVID-infested states quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival in the region. Essential workers were granted an exception, provided they had tested negative in the 72 hours prior to coming here.
“We’d probably try and work with the hotels as well, just to say look, if people have been tested, say, two or three days before coming, and they didn’t test positive, they are fine,” Lamont said during a June 23 appearance on CNBC to discuss the new system. “If they can’t show they’ve been tested, they’ve got to quarantine.”
But the Lamont administration feared the voluntary program lacked sufficient teeth to be effective. And while states with high-infection rates were limited to the deep South and West in late June, by mid-July they also had reached the Midwest and portions of the Atlantic coastline. More than 30 states, including Rhode Island, were on the list during the second half of July.
“We’re watching this like a hawk,” Lamont said during a July 20 briefing. “It’s not simply down there in the Sunbelt states.”
One day later the governor signed the executive order mandating the quarantine policy. Both tourists visiting from other states and Connecticut residents returning from vacations in COVID-infested areas are required to fill out the travel advisory form and indicate where they will self-quarantine. Fail to do either and travelers face a $1,000 fine.
Lamont threatened to station state police or public health personnel at Bradley International Airport to randomly check visitors for the form, but the tough talk didn’t account for a central fact about Connecticut’s tourism industry. According to a 2018 tourism analysis prepared for the state, only 11% of the state’s visitors arrive by air. The vast majority come by car or train.
The same 2018 study found 54% of travelers spent at least one night in one of Connecticut’s hundreds of hotels, motels or bed-and-breakfasts.
So unless the administration planned to stop all vehicles entering the state and grill passengers getting off trains and buses — clearly an unfeasible task — the time to screen most tourists would be when they secured lodging.
And that isn’t happening.
Hotels still could be asked to screen tourists if infections worsen
Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer, said tourists still might be asked later this summer to demonstrate full compliance with the quarantine policy to secure lodging in Connecticut.
“That is something we have discussed and remains on the table,” Geballe said. “Hopefully we don’t have to impose additional burdens on a hospitality sector that has already been hammered by COVID.”
But if no one is screening the tourists, then the only people likely to be penalized under Lamont’s policy are Connecticut residents.
Of the fines issued to date, all seven involved Connecticut residents who visited states with high infection rates and then failed to file travel advisory forms, to quarantine for 14 days, or both.
The state learned of the violators, in all cases, because of complaints raised by co-workers or neighbors who objected to being exposed to a potential health risk.
“We wanted to send a message loud and clear,” Lamont said. “Look I hate to do it, but we’re going to be serious and show people we’re serious about this and, to date, it’s made a difference.”
When asked about the fairness of this system, Geballe compared it to highway speed limit enforcement.
“A very small percentage of people who drive above 80 mph get a ticket,” he said, adding that everyone who exceeds the limit is nonetheless guilty.
Leisure and hospitality sector lost 70,000 jobs in April
The Lamont administration also has acknowledged that hotels, restaurants, and the rest of Connecticut’s leisure and hospitality sector, was damaged severely during the early stages of the pandemic.
Connecticut, which now enjoys one of the lowest infection rates in the nation — less than 1% of all coronavirus tests come back positive — got there in large part by shuttering this industry.
Hotels and motels were closed to all but essential personnel for the first two-and-a-half months, while restaurants were limited to take-out service.
Employment in the leisure and hospitality sector — lodgings, restaurants, and tourist and entertainment attractions combined — cratered from 146,000 jobs in March to 72,100 in April, according to the Department of Labor. Unemployment claims in this area continue to hover around 50,000.
A new report from Oxford Economics, commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, projects that the pandemic’s damage to Connecticut’s hospitality industry will cost the state $287.1 million in lost revenue.
Most hotels are seeing half of their normal patronage at this time, Kozlowski said, adding that the industry has lost more than tourists. Weddings and baby showers have been postponed. Business travel is dramatically reduced. Collegiate fall sports, another big visitor draw, have been curtailed or canceled.
“All of those things that make up our economy, those have not come back,” Kozlowski said. “It doesn’t take a lot to take a giant step backward.”
Selling a nearly COVID-free Connecticut to tourists
Still, the state launched a $1.2 million media campaign this summer to promote tourism with a timely hook: Connecticut is the safest place to relax and recreate amidst a pandemic.
“From the shoreline to the rolling hills, Connecticut hotels are welcoming back guests,” the narrator says to open one of the ads in the “So good to see you, Connecticut” campaign. “You’ll notice the new health and cleaning protocols — to make sure your stay is safe and comfortable.”
Lamont did his part to promote Connecticut’s clean image on national television, too.
“I think if Connecticut can’t get reopened, I don’t know who can around the country,” he said during an Aug. 9 appearance on “Face The Nation,” CBS news’ Sunday political affairs program. “And we’re doing it led by public health.”
According to state tourism research, Connecticut attracted close to 900,000 visitors monthly during the summer peak — July and August — before the pandemic. If hotels are seeing even half of their usual business, that’s still a huge surge of visitors who aren’t being screened for compliance with Lamont’s quarantine rules.
Randy Fiveash, director of the state Office of Tourism, said the ad campaign was focused solely on border states, most of which have not faced high infection rates this summer. And when Rhode Island’s numbers temporarily fell into the danger zone, the media feed there was suspended.
“We knew that we had to, first and foremost, look at it from a safety standpoint,” he said. “We knew that we had to provide for a safe environment for the visitor to come back to.”
But Fiveash also conceded that social media, YouTube and other online components of the ad campaign could be viewed nationally. And Connecticut attracts tourists from a much broader area than just New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Lodging industry trying to contain coronavirus spread
Even though the state isn’t screening tourists, Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said not to underestimate the hospitality sector’s commitment toward containing the virus.
“What I’m finding is everyone wants to be safe,” he said. “I think the vast majority of citizens want to comply.”
Amanda Arling, president of the Whaler’s Inn in Mystic, said she declined to admit a party from Florida that had not been tested and had no plans to quarantine.
What I’m finding is everyone wants to be safe. I think the vast majority of citizens want to comply.”
“We’re seeing more stay-cationers,” she said, meaning patrons predominantly come this summer from neighboring states rather than from other sections of the U.S.
Potential guests are apprised of the governor’s policy when reservations are confirmed, she said, and most hotels have posters outlining the details in their lobbies.
Arling, whose hotel was shut down from mid-March until mid-June, said she invested heavily in safety, with more housekeeping and deep cleaning services, Plexiglas and other barriers, personal protective gear, strict mask rules and new services like curbside check-in.
“We’ve seen the tourism industry rebound,” she said, adding no one wants to risk that by being careless about the coronavirus.
But Arling said she also believes it would be bad for business to screen every patron seeking a room for compliance with the governor’s travel form and quarantine rules. “I think that’s a very slippery slope,” she said. “Tempers are flaring and people are very frustrated right now.”
The state’s two largest tourism attractions, the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resorts Casino, both are exempt from Lamont’s order, being located on sovereign tribal lands.
But leaders of both southeastern Connecticut gaming centers said they apprise all visitors of the policy and take numerous precautions voluntarily.
Neither Foxwoods nor Mohegan Sun allow guests or staff to enter without wearing a mask and passing a temperature check, and masks must be worn at all times in public areas.
Foxwoods is only operating about 1,200 of its 2,200 hotel rooms and only reopened its convention business — serving mostly small groups of about 20 — two weeks ago, said interim CEO Jason Guyot.
“The [pandemic’s] impact has been massive, not only to us, but to the industry in general,” he said.
Still, Foxwoods doesn’t allow guests from states with high infection rates to stay for more than one day, unless they show a negative COVID-19 test result obtained within the last 72 hours. “We’ve put safety and security before profits,” Guyot added.
Mohegan Sun installed Plexiglas shields at many of its table games and has shut down every other slot machine to create more distance between guests, said president and general manager Jeff Hamilton. And while Mohegan Sun’s business “is built on large events” the arena activities and exposition center have been closed, he said.
Mohegan Sun hasn’t limited how long guests can stay, but all guests are apprised of the state’s quarantine policy, which also is included in all marketing materials.
“Our job is to make sure people are aware of the rules, but it has to be practical,” Hamilton said.
UConn economist: There’s more at risk, economically, than the tourism industry
It may be practical for Lamont to keep the quarantine rules as they are — so long as Connecticut maintains low infection rates, Carstensen said, adding the hospitality sector can’t take many more hits.
“We’re talking all kinds of businesses closing permanently,” he said. “Especially in the absence of any federal action, there’s a real danger of a cascading series of bankruptcies.”
By October the peak travel season will have passed.
But if the infection numbers get worse earlier than that, then Lamont is risking more — economically — than just the hospitality sector, by not screening tourists, Carstensen said. Connecticut businesses and consumers, already shellshocked by March and April’s events, are somewhat buoyed by the low infection rates, he said.
“It looks like we’re the only ones in the country that have gotten a handle on this,” Carstensen added. “We don’t want to slide backward. It’s all connected. If we don’t have confidence, if we don’t go out, if we don’t spend, the economy is not going to come back.”
Sign up for CT Mirror's free daily news summary.
Free to Read. Not Free to Produce.
The Connecticut Mirror is a nonprofit newsroom. 90% of our revenue comes from people like you. If you value our reporting please consider making a donation. You'll enjoy reading CT Mirror even more knowing you helped make it happen.YES, I'LL DONATE TODAY