Tyler Little (left) and his parents, Ray and Grace enjoy a meal at Elm City Social in New Haven on the first day indoor dining was allowed as part of the state’s Phase 2 reopening after restaurants were shuttered for three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, June 17, 2020. They were waiting to be joined by their daughter and sister, Alayna and her friends, to celebrate her high school graduation. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org
A slide from Gov. Ned Lamont’s March 4 press conference. Office of the Governor
A slide from Gov. Ned Lamont’s March 4 press conference. Office of the Governor

Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that Connecticut will eliminate capacity limits on restaurants, houses of worship, retailers and most businesses on March 19 but will retain mandates for social distancing and masks as a precaution against a resurgence of COVID-19.

The rollback comes as about 60% of Connecticut residents 65 and older have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, helping to drive down hospitalizations, new infections and deaths to their lowest point in 2021, though still higher than last summer.

The governor’s announcement was expected. It comes after Texas, Mississippi and three other states took more aggressive steps to end mask mandates and business restrictions, a move denounced as premature by President Joe Biden.

“This is not Texas. This is not Mississippi. This is Connecticut. We are maintaining the masks,” Lamont said at his twice-a-week briefing. “I think I told you at the start, I think over the course a year, we know what works, and masks work.”

His announcement was welcomed by a restaurant industry that has seen 600 closings since the pandemic hit nearly a year ago, causing Lamont to order widespread closures of commercial activity, then partial reopening on May 20.

Other restrictions will be relaxed in early April.

“Connecticut has earned it,” Lamont said. “You know, it’s been tough, and people have been frustrated. They’ve been sheltered at home, and a lot of our businesses really suffered, and people took a hit.”

Lamont used almost identical language last fall, when he loosened capacity restrictions from 50% to 75% on Oct. 8, only to return to 50% a month later as cases began to spike across the country and, eventually, in Connecticut.

The governor acknowledged that another rollback was possible if more contagious variants of the virus take hold and hospitals and ICUs again face being overwhelmed.

On Thursday, hospitals reported 433 COVID patients. By comparison, hospitalizations reached nearly 2,000 last spring, dropped below 100 over most of the summer, and then began to climb quickly in October, peaking at about 1,200. 

A major change since those two spikes is that the significant majorities of the age groups producing the most hospitalizations and deaths have received at least one dose of one of three available vaccines, two of which require two doses at least three weeks apart.

More than one million doses have been administered in Connecticut, with about 74% of the 75-and-older cohort getting a first dose; 59% of those 65-71; and 17% of those 55-64, who became eligible on Monday.

Lamont said he was well aware of the economic cost of his closure orders and was relieved to move into a new phase.

“I felt that I think more than most, so I’ll tell you, it feels pretty good. It feels good that we’re able to do this. It feels good that we’ve been slowly reopening since May 20. And we really haven’t had to turn back,” he said, referring to a complete closure. “I hope to God that we don’t.”

Social distancing rules still will constrain restaurants: Tables will be limited to eight patrons, tables must be spaced, and an 11 p.m. curfew will remain. In lieu of tables six feet apart, restaurants have the option of separating them by Plexiglas shields, as many already have done.

“Today marks another important step in Connecticut’s nation-leading efforts to defeat COVID-19,” said Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association. “Throughout the pandemic, Connecticut restaurants have proven that it’s possible to serve customers safely and responsibly.”

Not all restrictions have a set end date.

Dolch’s group has been relatively measured in reacting to the limits imposed by Lamont, lobbying for revisions, not a complete end. Dolch viewed the next phase as a waypoint in eliminating other limits.

“To be clear, there is still much work to be done before Connecticut and its restaurants are at full strength. Before the pandemic, restaurants accounted for more than 160,000 jobs in our state,” Dolch said. “To get back to that point, the state will need to fully lift the curfew, limits on table sizes and more. It can do it safely by maintaining social distancing and mask rules, along with other safety precautions. We look forward to working with our partners in government toward those goals in the weeks ahead.”

Bars that do not serve food must remain closed.

Dr. David Emmel, chair of the Connecticut State Medical Society’s Committee on Legislation, said as the state proceeds with a rollback on coronavirus-related restrictions, physicians are concerned that cases could creep back up. He urged diligence in continuing to wear masks and maintain six feet or more of distance when outside the home.

“We would like to see the rollbacks pursued very cautiously, and following the medical science and the experts’ advice,” Emmel said. “There’s a lot of evidence that masking and social distancing are key factors in slowing the pandemic down. We’ve only vaccinated a tiny fraction of the population. We’re not close to herd immunity. So it’s very critical to maintain” the precautions.

Emmel said the flattening positivity rate and falling or plateauing hospitalizations are positive signs.

“But there’s great concern that with the variants that are more contagious, we’re going to see a third spike,” he said.

Lamont and other administration officials said avoiding that third spike may turn on whether residents continue to take precautions after March 19 — and even after they are vaccinated. 

“If we continue to be very prescriptive and not give people a realistic vision for a better future, they’re going to start to ignore the public health guidance,” @ScottGottliebMD says. The government has to walk a fine line here, he adds. https://t.co/12YTOYcnbr pic.twitter.com/jX0FTL8z6m

— CNBC (@CNBC) March 4, 2021

On CNBC, one of Lamont’s informal advisers, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, said governors need to move carefully, keeping necessary restrictions — but not imposing standards that the public will ignore.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to issue guidelines for what is safe after vaccination. Gottlieb, whom Lamont says he consulted, was concerned that the CDC would offer unrealistic advice.

“I think it’s going to be overly prescriptive and conservative. And that’s the wrong message. Because if we continue to be very prescriptive and not give people a realistic vision for what a better future is going to look like, they’re going to start to ignore the public health guidance,” Gottlieb said. 

“And for the most part over the last 12 months, the American population has put up with a lot. They’ve complied with a lot of the provisions that were put in place, and we’re safer for that,” he said. “And we’re going to lose that support if we don’t give a realistic life path to a better future. Now, March is a little bit premature, I think, to lift everything, but certainly getting on a glide path towards lifting a lot of these provisions right now makes sense.”

Lamont said he agreed with Gottlieb about the importance of the public believing in whatever restrictions are imposed, because aside from enforcement actions against large, illegal gatherings at bars, they are largely self-enforcing.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

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