CT to remove most COVID capacity limits starting March 19

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Gov. Ned Lamont

Gov. Ned Lamont

John Minchillo / Associated Press

On a day when Connecticut’s COVID positivity rate was the lowest it’s been in weeks, Gov. Ned Lamont announced a reopening plan Thursday that will allow restaurants and most businesses to return to full capacity this month.

But masks and social distancing will still be required.

Starting March 19, capacity limits will be lifted at all restaurants, retail stores, personal services facilities, houses of worship, museums, aquariums, zoos, office buildings and other similar businesses.

Commercial gatherings like wedding halls will be limited to 100 people indoors and 200 outside. Private residential gatherings will be limited to 25 people inside and 100 outside.

Indoor theaters will remain at 50 percent capacity and bars that do not serve food will remain closed.

Previous restrictions capped many businesses, including restaurants, retailers and personal services facilities at 50 to 75 percent occupancy.

Lamont’s announcement comes as the state tracks low COVID-19 infections and a steady decrease in hospitalizations amid progress with the sweeping vaccination program. While some restrictions regarding occupancy caps will be lifted, state officials stressed that people will still be required to wear masks and social distancing guidelines will remain in place.

“This is not Texas. This is not Mississippi. This is Connecticut. We are maintaining the masks,” Lamont said.

Reflecting on his announcement to ease restrictions nearly one year since the pandemic first hit the state, the governor said Connecticut has “earned” its reopening.

“It’s been tough, people have been frustrated and they’ve been sheltered at home and a lot of our businesses really suffered,” Lamont said. “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. I hope to god that we don’t have to turn back this time, that the metrics stay in a positive direction.”

When addressing why he chose March 19 to ease restrictions, Lamont said: “We will have a lot more people vaccinated between now and March 19.”

On Thursday, state officials announced that Connecticut had surpassed more than 1 million total doses of vaccines administered — a number that takes into account both first and second doses of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Since those age 55 to 64 became eligible on Monday, 17 percent of the group has already been vaccinated, according to state data.

The governor acknowledged that not all of his medical advisors agreed with the reopening plan.

“Was it unanimous? No, I’ll be blunt about it,” Lamont said. But, he added, “I think there was general consensus that we know what works, we know there’s capacity at our hospitals” and that the state could turn back if cases spike again.

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On Thursday, the state reported a 1.86 percent daily positivity rate — the lowest it’s been since Feb. 16. Hospitalizations declined to 433, while the state reported 15 additional deaths.

That comes about two months after the state identified its first cases of a COVID variant that originated in the United Kingdom, and about two weeks since the first case of a variant found in South Africa was found here. Lamont had previously described a race to get as many residents vaccinated before those variants, believed to be more infectious, became predominant in the state.

But Lamont on Thursday downplayed concerns, saying the state has not seen infections related to the variants shoot up like a “hockey stick.”

Lamont said he consulted with Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, and Josh Geballe, his chief operating officer, both of whom are in regular contact with leaders of the state's major hospital systems. Many of those health professionals have also previously advised the state, the governor noted.

Dr. Asha Shah, associate director of infectious diseases at Stamford Health, said she believes the state and Stamford, specifically, are “in a good place” in terms of case numbers, hospitalizations and vaccinations. But it’s still critical for people to follow public health guidance.

“I think that there's a safe way to reopen,” Shah said. “And I think that's the same message that the governor is sending that, yes, maybe we reduce some of those restrictions on businesses, but it's still very important to continue to practice public health measures that we've been doing for the past year, with masking and social distancing and the washing of the hands and wiping down surfaces. That's key.”

The Connecticut Restaurant Association said the reopening plan is “another important step” in the state’s efforts to overcome the pandemic.

“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,” the association said in a statement. “To get back to that point, the state will need to fully lift the curfew, limits on table sizes and more.”

State officials acknowledged that safety measures like social distancing may prevent restaurants from opening to full capacity.

Bars that do not serve food will remain closed under the plan and the restaurant serving curfew will remain at 11 p.m.

David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, estimated there are between 300 and 400 bars statewide that have not been able to reopen.

While he did not provide an exact figure on the number of restaurants that have closed during the pandemic, Lehman estimated about 10 percent or more of the state’s 8,000 restaurants have stopped ordering food.

“Our hope is with this latest round of (the Paycheck Protection Program), you will see a lot of them reopen this spring,” Lehman said.

The state’s retailers association said the eased restrictions will allow businesses to return to more normal operations.

“Connecticut retailers remain committed to continuing to adhere to state guidelines and protocols, to protect the health and safety of customers and employees,” said Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association.

In a second tier of the reopening plan starting April 2, state officials said outdoor amusement parks can reopen, outdoor stadiums can open at 50 percent of capacity, but capped at 10,000 people, and indoor stadiums can open at 10 percent capacity.

Office buildings can also open fully starting March 19, but Lamont urged caution in having employees return to work.

“I would use your common sense. If you can telecommute, it’s probably a little bit safer for them, a little bit safer for everyone else. But you can go back appropriately,” Lamont said.

Lamont’s reopening plan comes as more states begin to ease restrictions given trends with COVID-19 infections and increased vaccination against the virus.

Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he would lift his state’s mask mandate and said businesses could reopen at 100 percent capacity in a move that’s been criticized by President Joe Biden.

“The last thing we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters. ... It’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science,” Biden told reporters, according to ABC News.

Staff Writers Peter Yankowski and Brianna Gurciullo contributed reporting.