Dan Haar: A pivotal day in a ‘time of reckoning’

Nathan Grube, left, the director of the Travelers Championship golf tournament, and Andy Bessette, executive vice president of Travelers, chat at the ALS Center of Excellence at the TPC River Highlands course in Cromwell in 2017. The tournament is dealing with positive COVID-19 tests and Bessette, a UConn alumnus and trustee, voted to eliminate four sports Wednesday in the coronavirus budget crunch.

Hazy light filtered through the trees in New Haven’s Wooster Square Park Wednesday morning as a gathering crowd broke the silence of the early morning, the silence of a time when the city and the state slowly emerge from the coronavirus grip.

Dozens came to defend the statue of Christopher Columbus, scheduled for removal by city-hired crews after a tense deal last week between Italian community leaders, the city and protesters who wanted the symbol of discovery and oppression gone.

It would not go smoothly.

At that moment in Hartford, Albany and Trenton, three governors launched a day when they would join to announce an unprecedented regional quarantine — not celebrating their states’ conquest of COVID-19, but defending it against visitors from parts of the country that shunned tri-state residents three months ago.

In Danbury, the Rev. Leroy Parker, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, pulled on a gray Nike T-shirt and powered up his computer for his uplifting, daily 7:15 a.m. prayer meeting on Facebook Live. After a half-hour of scripture and spiritual intonations, he reminded the hundreds in his flock that Thursday was the church’s protest march and rally, exactly one month after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis cop.

In Cromwell, the PGA Tour fretted over three new COVID-19 cases that caused a handful of golfers to pull out of the Travelers Championship, set to tee off Thursday in the weird mode of 2020, without fans.

And all around the state, members of the UConn board of trustees convened an online meeting to face a coronavirus-induced shortfall of at least $47 million. One with a heavy heart was Andy Bessette, who knew the board was about to slash four sports programs — although his beloved track & field was spared.

Forty years ago Bessette, a young UConn graduate who starred as a hammer-thrower in track & field, lost a chance to represent the nation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics as the United States mounted a boycott. That year Bessette joined Travelers, where he rose to executive vice president — and became the face of the golf tournament that seemed threatened Wednesday at the very moment when he had to vote key chunks of UConn athletics out of existence.

It was that kind of day, when everything happening in this spring and summer of turmoil rose up to remind Connecticut that this is a moment of truth — in the pandemic, in race relations, in our heritage and in how we carve up the costs.

In the middle of it, I asked Superior Court Judge Gary White, who sits in Stamford, whether this was a day of reckoning, with so many events unfolding.

“This day in particular is one among many and perhaps emblematic of what’s been going on,” he said. “It’s a time of reckoning, I wouldn’t say ‘day.’”

White, a judge since 1996, had just returned from his first trip to the downtown court house since the coronavirus shutdown, where he helped set up a video system ahead of Monday’s return to limited, in-person court proceedings. “Strange,” he said. “I hadn’t been in my office, I could see that people had been in there cleaning and rearranging.”

An orderly return to normal remained a dream for much of the state.

Back in Wooster Square, a fracas ensued between the white Columbus defenders, many of them from other towns but with roots in the Elm City, and a largely minority group who showed up to see the statue ousted. New Haven Police — the same ones in a firestorm of the “defund the police” movement that has targeted this city pointedly — quelled the uprising and managed to separate the two groups by late morning.

Right around 10 a.m., Stamford Police issued a statement about an ugly racial incident that happened Saturday. A white city resident had been caught on a video shouting at a group of five Black men with a boat on the harbor. He had called police to report they were harassing him.

“The Department is in the process of interviewing and obtaining formal statements from all involved individuals and sourcing a complete video as evidence,” the police said Wednesday morning.

At 11:30 a.m., Gov. Ned Lamont came on camera with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to announce that anyone visiting the three states from hard-hit parts of the country — as measured by COVID-19 tests — would be required to quarantine for two weeks.

“We reluctantly came to the conclusion that this is what we’ve got to do to make sure that our region stays safe and our states stay safe,” Lamont said on the call. “On a regional basis we can begin to get a handle on our borders and that is what this quarantine is designed to do.”

The governor spent the noon hour explaining how the quarantine might work, telling reporters what he’s been saying for months in the coronavirus crisis: The sanctions are clear and have the force of law and he expects everyone to follow them.

But no, the police won’t round up or ticket violators.

At the moment when the governors united, Bessette spoke up during a UConn board meeting that would last at least five hours. “The whole university is going to bleed a little bit,” he said.

The crisis took men’s tennis, cross-country and swimming & diving, and women’s rowing — even though it’s clear that UConn’s hapless football program is where the bleeding happens.

Another education battle brewed in that same hour. At 1 p.m., the office of state Attorney General William Tong received word that a lawsuit by 19 states including Connecticut had been filed. The action challenges the Trump administration’s elimination of rules to rein in abuses by for-profit colleges and vocational schools.

An hour later, at 2 p.m., Lamont and Bessette spoke on the phone — not about UConn but about the Travelers Championship. PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan had called a press conference for 2:30 p.m. Rumors grew that he was about to pull the plug on the tournament.

“We support you guys, you’re doing a great job,” Lamont told Bessette, as relayed by Lamont’s spokesman, Max Reiss.

There was no intervention and none was needed. Monahan declared that the PGA, Travelers, the TPC River Highlands golf course and the tournament staff had the situation under control — with seven positive results among players, caddies and staff out of 2,757 COVID-19 tests over nearly three weeks.

“I think we all need to remind ourselves that we’re all learning to live with this virus and we all need to live with this virus,” Monahan said from Cromwell. “We’re all in this together.”

All in this together. That was true in some places and not in others across Connecticut Wednesday, as the events of a season none of us will forget coalesced.

In Stamford, Judge White, who is African American, disagrees strongly with the idea of dismantling police but supports reforms. He’s in the moderate middle in a world where that seems scarce.

“Everything has been happening so fast for us with COVID-19 and the racial killings,” he said. “We have a great country. We have been faced with great problems and large difficulties before, and we will come through it.”

Connecticut Media Group