Gov. Ned Lamont waits for his virtual press briefing on COVID to begin. CT-N

As coronavirus-related hospitalizations surged, Gov. Ned Lamont reaffirmed his plans Wednesday to impose steep fines on the businesses that flout pandemic capacity rules during Black Friday and throughout the holiday shopping season.

And while the Connecticut Restaurant Association challenged the governor to match his $10,000-fine policy with new economic relief for struggling businesses, Lamont said the best he could do, for now, was to help them stay open by controlling coronavirus spread.

“It’s getting stretched, but we’re still on top” of the situation, Lamont said during a televised briefing Wednesday as he announced that 77 patients had been hospitalized on Tuesday with COVID-19 — the most on a single day since infection test rates began pushing upward in late August.

Over the past week, daily hospitalizations have averaged about 22, the governor said.

The latest bump pushed total hospitalizations statewide to 968. That’s still roughly half of the hospitalizations that occurred with the pandemic peaked here in mid-April.

The administration also reported 45 more deaths from COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, the virus has claimed 4,926 lives in Connecticut.

And of the 31,232 tests completed Tuesday, 1,872 were positive, a daily infection rate of slightly less than 6%.

Connecticut’s highest daily rate since the fall surge began was 6.7% on Nov. 10.

“We know that the next few weeks are going to be complicated,” Lamont said, adding that many health care experts anticipated November would be a bad month. 

Election Day generated large gatherings, and Thanksgiving and Black Friday are expected to do so as well. Many colleges and universities also ended on-campus learning this week, meaning thousands of students are traveling to return home — and potentially, to spread the coronavirus.

The governor said earlier this week that the latest COVID-19 surge isn’t expected to peak until mid-January.

The governor urged those planning to hit the stores this weekend to take advantage of expanding shopping options to reduce health risks.

Many stores allow customers to pre-arrange curbside pick-up and same-day home delivery, he said. Lamont also noted some retailers are extending Black Friday deals for days or even weeks, so all bargain-hunters don’t have to pack the stores when they open on Friday.

“It’s going to extend for a few weeks,” Lamont said. “No need to crash the line at 6 a.m.”

Still, given the rise in hospitalizations, Lamont on Wednesday reaffirmed his decision this week to order large, new fines — as high as $10,000 — for any business that violates capacity rules entering the busiest retail weekend of the year.

David Lehman, Lamont’s economic development commissioner, said the penalty “is really for gross violations” but “a lot of warnings have been given out.”

The governor said “if there are a few outliers, they will be held accountable.”

But Scott Dolch, executive director of the state restaurant association, challenged the governor to help the many struggling businesses that are following safety rules and not to just punish the few that flout them.

“The governor himself has said that the vast majority of restaurants are doing what they’re supposed to in order to keep customers and employees safe,” Dolch wrote in a statement. “Our industry will continue to stand with him and call out anyone who isn’t following the rules. But if Connecticut is going to use fines as a stick, it should also use state grants as a carrot for restaurants that are following the rules while struggling to keep their doors open.”

Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, declined to weigh in on the steep new fine ordered by the governor.

“We want to focus more on the fact that our stores will be safe and will be compliant, and customers should feel confident when they walk into retail stores,” Phelan said. 

Customers will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing while stores adhere to capacity limits, he said, adding that “We’ve been complying with those guidelines since the start of the reopening and will continue to do so.”

Lamont has been criticized, not just by restaurants, but also by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, nonprofit social service agencies, and by municipalities, for not providing more financial relief during the pandemic.

“States all around us are implementing bigger grant programs than Connecticut for their small businesses right now, because they know those businesses are vital to their state economies,” Dolch added. “So our simple question for Gov. Lamont is this: If we’re going to punish the few bad actors, how are we also going to help the many, many good actors?”

Administration officials have said the federal government is responsible for providing that kind of support and that Congress should have enacted another round of omnibus relief for states this past summer.

But since the pandemic began in March, Connecticut’s emergency budget reserve has swelled from $2.2 billion to nearly $3.1 billion. The latter figure represents 15% of annual operating costs, the maximum fiscal cushion allowed under state law.

The governor has said he hopes to use those reserves to help avoid any major tax increases in the next two-year state budget, which faces a huge potential deficit due to the pandemic-induced recession.

Lamont did offer a state-funded, $50 million loan program to businesses in late March. But it maxed out in two days — after receiving more than $200 million in applications for aid.

“Everybody wants more help with state resources,” Lamont said Wednesday. “I appreciate that right now. The best thing I can do for the restaurants is allow them to stay open as long as they can stay open safely.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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