Gov. Ned Lamont appealed Monday for Connecticut residents to temper their holiday gatherings — and shopping — with social distancing and other precautions to avoid accelerating the fall coronavirus spread.
Lamont, who announced the state’s infection rates dropped modestly over the past weekend, rebuffed a request from Connecticut’s teachers’ unions to close all schools to in-person instruction following the Thanksgiving break.
“We need your help on this,” Lamont said Monday during a televised briefing, appealing to residents planning to gather with family and friends on Thanksgiving, or to hit the stores for Black Friday — one of the busiest retail shopping days of the year. “If we see a lot of evidence of casual behavior, we will step in.”
But the governor also conceded that he’s warned Connecticut’s retailers that they largely will be responsible for “self-policing” customers.
Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, said afterward that retailers have been modifying their practices since the pandemic broke out in March and will continue to follow safe store guidelines this weekend.
That means ensuring all customers wear masks — some retailers will provide them free to shoppers who lack masks — and asking people to maintain proper distancing.
“We’re all in this together,” Phelan added. “We all have to make sure we do our part this holiday season to make sure everyone shops safely. … We are sensitive in this holiday season.”
After watching daily and weekly infection rates tick gradually upward since late August, Connecticut has seen several days in the last few weeks when more than 6% of coronavirus tests completed were positive.
But the results for Friday through Sunday recorded 5,271 new COVID-19 cases out of 109,045 tests, a rate of 4.8%. The infection test rate for the past week dropped slightly from 5.8% to 5.5%, Lamont said.
But the governor cautioned residents against relaxing their guard against the virus.
“I think you are going to see it bouncing around, and I do worry that the upward trend could continue,” he said, adding that he’s reviewed models projecting the fall/winter surge may not peak until mid- or late January.
The governor was optimistic that a vaccine could be broadly distributed to the Connecticut population by early summer.
But in the short term, the virus continues to spread. Lamont noted that a majority of Connecticut’s 212 nursing homes have at least one resident with an infection.
The administration also recorded 43 deaths due to the coronavirus from Friday through Sunday, raising the statewide total since the pandemic began to 4,871.
Another 27 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus, bringing the statewide total to 875. That’s about half of the 1,972 hospitalizations Connecticut faced when the pandemic reached its spring peak back on April 21.
Also Monday, the University of Connecticut reported five new cases over the past weekend among residents of its main campus in Storrs and another six cases involving commuting students to that location.
There are 67 students currently in isolation on the Storrs campus with COVID-19. A total of 358 cases among students were recorded there during the fall semester to date.
Most students left the Storrs campus this past week for the Thanksgiving break. The university will conduct the last two weeks of fall semester classes and final exams only via remote, online connections. Several hundred students will remain on campus during the break, though, including athletes, international students and others.
The Board of Education Union Coalition, which includes Connecticut’s two largest teachers’ unions, appealed to the administration Friday to end in-person instruction in elementary and secondary schools after Thanksgiving — absent the implementation of new, statewide safety protocols and a strict enforcement plan.
“The dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases raises safety concerns for students,” said Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says schools are not the safest place during the pandemic, and in-person learning is a high-risk activity. The state must take steps now to strengthen safety or else move to all distance learning as we brace for this second wave of the virus.”
“We applaud those school officials who have worked in partnership with their employees and placed a high priority on health and safety,” added Jan Hochadel, AFT Connecticut’s president. “Too many have fallen short on both counts, so more must be done immediately. It just makes sense to proactively close buildings rather than have students endure constant disruptions and upheaval.”
But Lamont and state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said Monday that the decision about remote vs. in-person instruction is best made at the local level, in accordance with state guidelines.
About 70% of Connecticut’s students, more than 350,000, have received in-person instruction in the schools this fall, Cardona said, adding that children learn better in this fashion than through online classes.
The commissioner added that as long as mask use, social distancing and cleaning protocols are followed, school is one of the safest places these children can be during the pandemic.
“I think our schools have done an extraordinary job putting public health and safety first,” Lamont said. “We’re doing everything we can to give our kids the best shot.”
Lamont also appealed Monday for more residents to volunteer with testing centers and nonprofit social services to help these programs remain efficient during the pandemic.
“We could use hundreds, even thousands” of volunteers, he said.
Testing sites plagued by long lines need volunteers who can help with administrative tasks or assisting in providing the test.
“We are bending under the weight for testing,” said Dr. Suzanne Lagarde, CEO of Fair Haven Community Health Care, a federally qualified health center in New Haven.
While it typically received 80-90 calls for testing per day earlier in the pandemic, it has watched that number quadruple in recent weeks, she said. “We’re having lines that literally go around the block.”
Lamont said interested persons can learn more about opportunities to volunteer at the state’s Step Up Connecticut website.