Connecticut will move to a third phase of easing COVID-19 restrictions on Oct. 8, permitting theaters and concert halls to reopen on a limited basis and increasing the indoor capacity of restaurants and event venues as the New England weather turns crisp.
Gov. Ned Lamont struck a parental note in announcing the changes at a late-afternoon briefing Thursday, expressing equal measures of pride in how Connecticut tamed the novel coronavirus and nervousness about the risk of a relapse.
“We’ve earned the right to take a little more risk, I’ve got to admit it, when it comes to restaurants and some of these events and some of these gatherings,” Lamont said. “But I think it’s important that we keep this progress going as long as we do it cautiously.”
His commissioner of economic and community development, David Lehman, said 99% of the state’s economy will able to be open after Oct. 8, albeit under orders requiring a continued adherence to social-distancing and other precautions.
“I think the question is how much does the consumer participate in that economy,” Lehman said. The state estimates that business activity is off 15% to 20% from pre-COVID levels.
Connecticut suffered greatly in the early months of the pandemic, posting a per-capita death rate that trailed only New Jersey and New York. But residents and businesses, by and large, have complied with closure orders that came at a high economic cost.
“The economy will never come back if public health is not front and center,” Lamont said. “That’s true just in terms of giving consumers confidence, and it’s true more broadly in terms of the economy. I think Connecticut so far is going in the right direction.”
The state just hit a milestone of 1.5 million tests, slowly building a capacity that now is about 100,000 a week. Connecticut needed five months to reach one million tests — and only one month for the next half-million, Lamont said.
“That shows we’re able to keep on top of the infection rate in the state, keep on top of track and trace, and hold the lid on what we’ve got to do,” Lamont said. “And that gives us a little bit of flexibility going forward.”
The current seven-day average is a 1.1% positivity rate on COVID testing.
On Thursday, the state Department of Public Health reported two COVID-related deaths, bringing the total to 4,499, and 157 new cases. There were 72 patients hospitalized with COVID, down from a peak of 2,000 in late April.
“Pretty good numbers there,” Lamont said. But he added, “This is not time for us to lose our discipline.”
Connecticut began easing restrictions in May. In Lamont’s words, the state “hit the pause button” in July, alarmed by a resurgence of the disease throughout much of the U.S., though not in the northeast.
Under phase 3, indoor dining at restaurants can increase from 50% to 75% of capacity, as will be the case for libraries, hair salons and personal services. Indoor performance-arts venues can reopen at 50% of capacity with requirements for masks and social distancing.
Currently limited to no more than 25 patrons and staff, commercial event facilities will be able to use 50% of their capacity, capped at 100 people indoors and 150 outdoors. Indoor graduations and religious services will be capped at 200.
For couples getting married, that could mean a church wedding of up to 200, but an indoor reception of no more than 100. Lamont, whose daughter postponed until next year her Labor Day weekend wedding, said the restrictions will be periodically re-evaluated.
The Connecticut Restaurant Association has been pressing the Lamont administration to begin phase 3, while refraining from public criticism. The industry has acknowledged that lifting the restrictions would be of limited value without public confidence in the safety of restaurant dining.
“Today’s news is another important step in Connecticut’s nation-leading efforts to respond to COVID-19 in a safe and responsible manner,” said Scott Dolch, the executive director of the association. “Like the rest of the country, Connecticut is not out of the woods of this pandemic by any stretch, but we’ve proven that it’s possible to be mindful of our local economy at the same time we keep our residents as safe as possible.”
The restaurants were allowed outdoor dining in May and limited indoor dining on June 17.
“That means that for more than three months, customers throughout the state have been dining indoors while Connecticut has held COVID transmission to some of the lowest levels in the country,” Dolch said. “Connecticut restaurateurs have proven their ability to adapt, follow new rules, and serve customers safely.”
At its peak, the restaurant industry employed 10% of the workforce.
The industry continues to face significant challenges, even as restrictions ease. With limited business travel and meetings, as well as companies continuing to allow many employees to work remotely, the pool of potential patrons remains small in some places.
Bars and nightclubs remain closed, though bars and brew pubs with dining are open.
“We’re encouraging a dining experience — and a seated one at that,” Lehman said.
“For me, the bars by definition are everything contrary to social distancing, everything contrary to maintaining your distance, everything contrary to wearing a mask,” Lamont said.
Outdoor venues can increase attendance from 25% to 50% of capacity, most likely allowing fans to begin watching the professional soccer club, Toronto FC, which has temporarily moved its home games from Toronto to Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
“We are having a live conversation right now about that, and we are very hopeful we can provide Connecticut residents with the opportunity to be there live, in person.” Lehman said. “So, stay tuned. More to come.”