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Conn. Governor Says May 20 'An Important Start-Up Date' For State Economy

closed small business
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
A closed sign on a barbershop in New London on April 15. As COVID-19 started to spread in Connecticut, the state shut down barbershops and salons in March.

Connecticut’s shuttered economy could begin to reopen on May 20, starting with a limited number of businesses such as restaurants and nail salons, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday. But there will be restrictions even for those businesses, and state officials caution that any reopening strategy depends on adequate testing and a persistent decline in coronavirus cases. 

This story has been updated. 

The announcement came as the state experienced the eighth consecutive day of declining hospitalizations. On Thursday, Connecticut reported 41 fewer hospitalizations than the previous day, leaving 1,650 people hospitalized with COVID-19

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Lamont has repeatedly said a 14-day decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations is key to moving forward with loosening the state lockdown. Other priorities include contact tracing, acquiring enough personal protective equipment, and a major increase in testing.

Yale University epidemiologist Albert Ko, a co-chair of the state’s reopening committee, said Connecticut needs to triple its testing capacity by May 20.

“About 42,000 tests per week,” Ko said. “That’s roughly about 6,000 tests per day.”

“May 20 is an important start-up date for us,” Lamont said.

Under this first phase, restaurants could reopen to diners but only for outdoor service. Other “main street” retailers like jewelers and toy stores would be allowed to reopen, provided they abide by social distancing recommendations. Personal services like barbershops and nail salons may also open their doors on May 20 but possibly on a limited basis as the state develops guidelines on how that would work, Lamont said.

Office workers who have been telecommuting would still be recommended to work from home on May 20, he added, “but if there is some need for some people to go back, this is a time that you can start putting your foot in the water there.”  

And the governor said museums and zoos may reopen on that date as long as patrons are kept outdoors. 

“That’s conditioned upon making sure we have the testing,” Lamont said. “Making sure we have the contact tracing.”

But Lamont pushed talk of reopening schools and bigger social gatherings to next week, when he said the state will have more preliminary information.

Meanwhile, the state’s positive case count rose to nearly 28,000 on Thursday. An additional 89 people died, raising the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 2,257.

Lamont acknowledged that nursing homes have been hit hard by fatalities. “That’s something we have to think about seriously,” he said. 

Nursing Homes Continue To Face Challenges Managing COVID-19

Connecticut health care workers said Thursday that long-term care facilities across the state continue to face a variety of challenges containing the coronavirus and obtaining the equipment needed to keep residents and workers safe.

Paul Liistro, a managing partner of Vernon Manor and Manchester Manor Health Care Center, said it cost nearly $45,000 to purchase 7,000 gowns for health care workers at his facilities. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, he said one gown cost less than a dollar. 

"The PPE battle continues to go on, but it’s the most important thing we have to encourage our staff to come to work,” said Liistro, speaking during a news conference organized by the state’s largest nursing home association.

According to nursing home leadership and doctors, PPE, testing and staffing are the three keys to keeping the coronavirus from becoming deadlier in nursing homes. Dr. Alison Kris with Fairfield University said widespread testing is critical. 

Liistro said they want to work with the state Department of Public Health to come up with a plan, especially as the threat of a second wave of infections looms this fall. He believes COVID-only facilities are the best way to contain the virus.

“If I were in charge, these dedicated facilities would be around for a while,” Liistro said, “because personally, I believe that isolation in dedicated facilities mitigates the deaths that we’ve seen in nursing homes. This virus likes density.”

As Gasoline Sits Unsold, State Issues Waivers To Distributors 

The state has issued a temporary waiver that will allow gas distributors to sell a higher-polluting mix of winter-blend gasoline for a longer window of time. 

Gas retailers usually switch to a less polluting and slightly more efficient summer blend of gasoline in the spring. But with fewer drivers on Connecticut roads because of the COVID-19 lockdown, there are now unsold stockpiles of winter-blend gas. 

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Department of Consumer Protection issued the temporary joint waiver on Thursday. 

“There continues to exist an unexpected oversupply of higher volatility winter-blend gasoline as a result of changed behavior in response to COVID-19, which cannot be sold,” state regulators wrote. 

The state waiver extends the amount of time that winter-blend gasoline can be sold. It will remain in effect until the unsold gas is depleted.

System Online For Connecticut’s Self-Employed To Apply For Federal Unemployment Benefits

Self-employed workers in Connecticut who have been denied state unemployment benefits can start applying for assistance under a new federal program.

As part of the federal CARES Act, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program can offer up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to independent contractors and gig workers who weren’t eligible for traditional state assistance. The amount of benefits paid out will vary by state.

Connecticut’s Department of Labor announced Thursday that its PUA system is live and accepting claims. But the application process is tricky. 

“This is a federally required two-step process,” Nancy Steffens, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, said in an email. “Self-employed can’t apply on the PUA site until they have been processed through the state filing site and denied state benefits.”

Confused? Here’s how it all works: 

  • First, apply through the traditional Connecticut unemployment system, using the blue button to file.
  • Wait for confirmation in the mail that the claim has been rejected. PUA applicants should receive a “Form UC-58 Monetary Determination” that will be sent by mail. If it shows a zero weekly benefit rate, this means an applicant is not eligible for state benefits -- but is now eligible to file for PUA benefits.
  • Next, go to CTDOL www.filectui.com and -- starting in a few days -- look for the red button to file for PUA benefits. A department spokesperson says this red button isn’t posted yet, but it will be put on the site next week.
  • Apply for PUA benefits. The application requires 2019 IRS forms 1099, 2019 W-2s and Schedule C. Applicants will be asked to provide earnings for 2019, broken down by quarters. If you lack tax records for 2019, you can self-attest earnings, but you will be subject to audit, a department spokesperson said. 
  • Once the PUA application is completed, if applicants did not select a payment method when filing under the state unemployment system, they will select their method of payment. Direct deposit is recommended, but debit cards are available. 

State’s Biggest Teachers Union Urges Caution Over School Reopenings

The state’s largest teachers union told the governor that Connecticut needs to develop a range of safety protocols before deciding whether to reopen schools this spring.

Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association, wrote in a letter Thursday that such protocols include staggering start times, implementing new seating formats and changing the way students walk down the halls between periods. 

He also said schools will need to be disinfected daily and have procedures for the continual cleaning of classrooms and commonly shared areas and equipment, including computers and desks.

“And that’s just the beginning,” Leake wrote. “What’s even more vital to the process of reopening our state is plenty of personal protective equipment and the ability to perform comprehensive coronavirus testing, tracing and tracking in order to safeguard the health of our residents.”

Congresswoman Jahana Hayes Enters COVID-19 Quarantine

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) said Thursday she’ll be quarantining at home for the next two weeks after her husband, a police detective in Waterbury, tested positive for COVID-19 after being exposed to the virus at work.

In a statement, Hayes said her husband is “healthy and asymptomatic.” She also said her own test came back negative. Hayes said that while some are pushing Congress to get back to Washington, she thinks there’s danger in returning prematurely.

“This test result in my own family has reinforced that we still have a ways to go,” Hayes said. “I urge everyone to continue to follow CDC guidance, continue to stay home and continue to socially distance and wash your hands frequently.”

Mohegan Sun To Remain Closed Over COVID-19 Concerns

Mohegan Sun announced this week that it will remain closed through at least May 12, citing ongoing concerns over the health crisis. Casino officials had originally planned to reopen at the end of the week. 

Both Mohegan and Foxwoods Resort Casino agreed to close last month. They are not required to follow Lamont’s shutdown directives since they are in sovereign tribal nations. Foxwoods has not announced a reopen date, but it has canceled hotel reservations until May 24 and postponed or canceled all shows and events originally scheduled for May.

Furniture Donation To The City Of New Haven

Ikea New Haven says it’s donating over $17,000 in furniture and home goods to the city of New Haven’s health department to help those experiencing homelessness. 

The retailer said in a statement that the city is working to move people out of shelters -- where social distancing is difficult -- into apartments. Ikea says its donation will help furnish key essentials for 30 units, including kitchen tables and chairs, pots and pans, bed frames and mattresses. 

It’s part of a nationwide $1.6 million donation from the company.

Connecticut Public Radio reporter Ryan Lindsay contributed to this report. This story contains information from the Associated Press.

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