Speaking in Newtown on Friday about Connecticut’s sudden popularity as a place for families to move, Gov. Ned Lamont focused on the schools. And his message was not mainly about education quality.
“I think they love the fact that our schools are primarily open,” Lamont said in remarks reported by my colleague Alexander Soule. “We have 95 percent of our kids having an opportunity to go to school into the classroom. They’ve shut down in Boston. They’re closing in New York.”
Connecticut? Here, the governor said, for kids at least, one goal is to “make sure that this complicated period is not a lost period.”
Forgive Lamont if that doesn’t sound like the leader of a state that had four cities and towns in “red alert” of COVID-19 infections two weeks ago; eleven last week; nineteen this week; and the high likelihood of more next Thursday when the state rolls out a new list.
This is a governor walking a fine line in two different ways. First, Lamont needs to hew to his philosophy of science first, shut down whenever and wherever it’s necessary, while still opening the state back up as much as possible.
He’s proud of the fact that Connecticut’s economy is 90 percent back, as measured by the total value of industry sectors in operation. And he’s proud of the state’s top-five record of keeping coronavirus under control since June.
In the second fine line, Lamont faces the dilemma of state control vs. letting towns decide for themselves how to react to coronavirus spikes. The answer is a hybrid, which works better in some places than others.
What does it mean? On Oct. 8, Lamont moved the state into Phase 3 of the reopening, with restaurants and other service providers allowed to fill 75 percent of their indoor seats, up from 50 percent, and with larger gatherings allowed outside and at performance events.
Soon after, he gave cities and towns the right to roll back to Phase 2 — but only if they’re in the red zones, with 15 or more infections per day per 100,000 residents, averaged over a two-week period.
On Friday, Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, faced with a tough call on reverting back to Phase 2 now that his city is in the red — deeply, I might add — rebuffed the idea of local control.
Rilling said he’s make the hard decisions, and that, for now, the problem is small social groups, not the restaurant scene in South Norwalk, which sure seems scary even to people, like me, willing to eat next to a croded table of loud young people.
But Rilling added, in comments reported by my colleague Erin Kayata at The Hour, “Having an individual community make this decision doesn’t make much sense in a state as small as Connecticut. Our residents work in other towns, commute across the state, and visit other attractions and restaurants. If we roll back to Phase 2, I fear that will not help keep Norwalk residents healthy, and will just hurt our local businesses. I hope the state will reconsider this town-by-town approach before things get much worse.”
That’s a direct shot at Lamont, who doesn’t seem inclined to step and pull all the levers himself. In the spring and summer, Lamont agreed with Rilling’s point and insisted on a one-size-fits-all approach not only for the whole state, but in coordination with New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states, whenever possible.
What changed? Testing in huge numbers and robust contact tracing gave the state the ability to pinpoint problems precisely. Pressure from businesses led Lamont to push the bounds without, we hope, leading to new outbreaks. As Rilling said, the problem is not chiefly at businesses but in people hanging out.
Still, this does not mean the state hangs back and waits to see what the red alert places do. Far from it.
I’m reminded of a time when the Rolling Stones and drummer Charlie Watts starting using pre-recorded drum sampling in concerts. Purists were aghast. A manager, in the drippiest British accent imaginable, responded, paraphrasing here: “I can assure you that Mr. Watts is giving the matter his utmost attention.”
As is Mr. Lamont and Dr. Deidre Gifford, the acting commissioner of public health (can we please drop the “acting” already?) and Mr. Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, and Mr. Paul Mounds, the chief of staff, and Mr. David Lehman, commissioner of economic and community development.
In the town of Fairfield, another newly anointed red zone, Sands Cleary, the public health director, doesn’t have a problem with the state-municipal partnership in which it’s up to towns to decide on key moves including rolling back.
“We have a fantastic working relationship with the state and I feel we are very well supported by the state,” Cleary said Friday. “We have multiple conference calls per week.”
We can safely assume those conference calls include some serious arm-twisting by the state, when necessary. And the state is doing geo-fenced messages to residents on Facebook, and encouraging cities and towns to use their reverse-9-1-1 alerts to let residents know they’re in the danger zone.
As we all know by now, there is red and there is red, when it comes to COVID spikes.
Danbury spiked up toward the end of the summer and has slowly declined. Fairfield’s spike came a couple of weeks ago at Sacred Heart University and Fairfield University, which, together, account for most — but Cleary notes, not all — of that town’s infections.
Norwalk is the bigger problem of the three. Its numbers continue to rise and there’s no obvious source.
Testing and isolation is part of the answer. But Norwalk needs to take more steps on its own. Connecticut is on track to reach between 600,000 and 700,000 tests in October. Notably, we’re on track to see the same range of absentee ballots voting in the election.
Both efforts — COVID control and the election — are a combination of state and local control, state and local action. That’s as it needs to be as long as residents do their part. The state and municipalities should not hesitate to exert more muscle to make both go smoothly.
In Norwalk, that means marching into restaurants and telling big groups adhering to the letter of the law but violating the spirit, to break it up and knock it off.