Connecticut Politics Week in Review: Gov. Ned Lamont begins further easing of COVID-19 restrictions as case numbers drop

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Russell Blair, Hartford Courant
·8 min read
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Gov. Ned Lamont is continuing to roll back restrictions on gatherings and businesses as the coronavirus pandemic wanes in Connecticut, saying he is “cautiously confident” that the state is continuing to head in the right direction as COVID-19 cases decline and vaccinations rise with spring approaching.

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The big story

Lamont begins further easing of COVID-19 restrictions: With Connecticut’s coronavirus test positivity rate continuing to decline and hospitalizations also dropping, Lamont has moved to further ease restrictions on gatherings and events. Beginning March 19, weddings and other social events of up to 100 people indoors and up to 200 people outdoors will be permitted. Youth athletic events will be allowed to have spectators at 25% capacity, with a 200-person cap. Other restrictions are expected to be eased further in the coming weeks and months, but Lamont has so far declined to offer a timeline. “I’m feeling more and more confident — cautiously confident — that we can continue to cautiously reopen,” the governor said at a recent press briefing. On Friday, the state reported a 2.58% test positivity rate and 33 fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations for a total of 535 statewide. That number had hovered around 1,250 in mid-December during the height of the state’s second wave of infections. Hospitalizations peaked at just under 2,000 in mid-April during the first surge. While Lamont has begun to move to reopen more of the state’s economy, some health experts warn that moving too fast could derail the progress the state has made in fighting the virus, particularly with the looming threat of more infectious coronavirus variants taking hold here.

Five things you may have missed

Teachers will be vaccinated at same time as other essential workers: Connecticut’s K-12 teachers will be vaccinated in the next wave of inoculations alongside other frontline essential workers, Lamont said this past week. “I’m not sure you move grandma to the back of the line so you can move [teachers] forward,” he told The Courant’s editorial board. Teacher unions had been pushing for their members to be moved to the front of the line, or, alternatively, to dedicate a certain percentage of vaccines each week for educators. At a news conference before Lamont’s comments, Don Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said vaccinating school staff can help keep buildings open for in-person classes. “When we vaccinate schoolteachers and staff, we reduce school closures, and the disruption it causes for students and their families,” he said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said teacher vaccinations should not be a prerequisite to school reopenings.

Community college deficits increase as enrollment declines: Enrollment at Connecticut’s community colleges has dropped off by more than 15%, helping to increase a projected deficit for the dozen schools from $16 million in the fall to $22 million now, officials said Thursday. Administrators had initially thought the coronavirus-weakened economy would encourage more students to enroll in community college, but the opposite has happened, particularly among part-time students. Ben Barnes, chief financial officer for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system that oversees the community colleges and four regional state universities, said during a meeting Thursday that it would be a challenge to return to prior enrollment levels and suggested additional investment in that area. Lamont’s recently proposed two-year budget does not include additional state aid for public colleges and universities, instead relying on $40 million in federal higher education relief money the state has received.

$250K to protect Capitol for protests that didn’t materialize: Nearly $250,000 in state police overtime and National Guard staffing costs were racked up as police and soldiers moved to protect the state Capitol in Hartford last month for protests that never materialized. The Connecticut State Police logged 2015.25 overtime hours at a cost of $124,744.68, Brian Foley, a state police spokesman, told The Connecticut Mirror. The Connecticut National Guard spent four days at the Capitol and other sites, with 128 soldiers and airmen on duty for a total cost of $122,861. Police across the country braced for protests by pro-Trump supporters ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol but, at least in Hartford, reporters and photographers outnumbered the handful of people who showed up. “We believe what we were doing was appropriate based on the intel we had,” Foley said last month of the police show of force.

Vaccine hearing ends after 24 hours over GOP objections: Republicans on the legislature’s public health committee accused Democrats of shutting down debate after they moved to adjourn a 24-hour, online public hearing on controversial vaccine legislation before nearly 1,700 people who had signed up to speak were allowed to testify. The hearing was dominated by those opposed to legislation that would eliminate the state’s religious exemption to otherwise required vaccines for schoolchildren. Hundreds of parents, and many Republican lawmakers, view it as an example of government overreach and say families should be able to make their own decisions about vaccinations. Lawmakers turned their attention to the issue after a national measles outbreak in 2019 that included a handful of cases in Connecticut. State data at the time showed a significant increase in religious exemptions and that more than 100 schools had vaccination levels below recommendations from public health experts.

Bottle deposit fee could rise to 10 cents in move to boost redemption: With more and more bottles and cans ending up in the trash, lawmakers are considering doubling the state’s bottle deposit fee from 5 cents to 10 cents to encourage more people to return their empty drinking vessels. “We’ve got to do a better job of recycling, and I think what [House Speaker] Matt [Ritter] is talking about with the bottle bill is a good start,” Lamont said recently. The 5-cent deposit has been around 40 years, and officials say just 50% of containers in Connecticut are returned. The others end up in single-stream recycling, in the trash or as litter. A higher fee, Ritter and others argue, would incentive people to redeem the containers and receive back the upfront fee they pay. “And if we don’t get glass out of our single-stream recycling, the tipping fees are just going to continue going up,” Ritter said.

Odds and ends

Robert Clark, who left the Superior Court in January 2019 to join Lamont in the governor’s office as his top legal adviser, has been nominated by Lamont to fill a vacancy on the state Appellate Court. “I am proud to nominate him to the Appellate Court because I am certain that he will serve with the same high level of competence, integrity, and wisdom that he has consistently demonstrated throughout his career,” Lamont said Wednesday. … Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has been named chair of a Senate subcommittee focused on consumer protection issues. “Consumers need vigorous voices and champions now more than ever,” said Blumenthal, who made consumer protection a focus during his career as state attorney general. “I am honored to serve as Chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and continue fighting — as I have in the past — to protect Americans from fraud and abuse,” he said. … Bobby Valentine, the former MLB manager who now oversees athletics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, is weighing a potential mayoral run in his hometown of Stamford. “It is an election year for some of the situations in our city, in our state — and I have given it consideration, and I’m still considering it,” Valentine said Thursday, according to a report in Hearst Connecticut Media. “Let me put it that way.” A Valentine friend told Hearst if he did run he would do so as an unaffiliated candidate. … State Rep. J.P. Sredzinski, a Republican, has resigned from his House seat representing Monroe and Newtown after three terms. “I have come to the conclusion that this is the right decision for me and my family for many reasons,” he wrote in a resignation letter to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. Sredzinski said he wanted to devote more time to his family and to his job; he was recently promoted to be the head of Stratford’s 911 dispatch center. … Ex-State Rep. Chris Davis, R-Ellington, has landed a job as a lobbyist with the Connecticut Lottery Corp. after he declined to seek reelection in November. Davis will be paid $85,859 annually, according to state payroll records, a significant boost from what he earned during five terms in the General Assembly. While a lawmaker, Davis was also a real estate agent and an adjunct professor of political science. The news was first reported by Courant columnist Kevin Rennie.

Russell Blair can be reached at rblair@courant.com.