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Connecticut Offers $25M In Business Loans As Coronavirus Death Toll Rises

Ned Lamont
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC
Gov. Ned Lamont and Department of Public Health Commissioner Renée D. Coleman-Mitchell (left) talk with Reginald J. Eadie, president and CEO of Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, during a tour of a mobile field hospital on Tuesday."

As federal lawmakers worked on finalizing a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, Connecticut officials on Wednesday detailed their own economic recovery plans for small businesses to tackle the “unprecedented” pace of jobless claims in the state.

The Connecticut Recovery Bridge program will draw on $25 million in existing state money and offer businesses and nonprofits loans of up to $75,000 to cover three months of operating expenses at no interest. Applications open Thursday morning.

“We want to make sure that businesses can have enough cash to meet their payroll, to meet their rent, to meet their insurance and other costs for this three-month period as we battle the virus,” said David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development. “We anticipate these loans will be paid off when revenues come back, as the economy comes back to normal.”

News of the recovery loans came as Gov. Ned Lamont announced a grim tally on Wednesday: The number of positive COVID-19 cases in the state had risen to 875. He said seven more people died from the virus, bringing the state’s coronavirus death toll to 19. The majority of the cases remain in Fairfield County. 

Statewide, the virus has hospitalized 106 people. But Lamont said he has seen signs that residents are self-quarantining to prevent the spread of the virus, which he encouraged. 

“People are taking the social distancing very seriously,” Lamont said, citing reports that ridership has dropped nearly 95% on the Metro-North railroad that runs between Connecticut and New York.

Unemployment Claims

With small businesses hit especially hard by the COVID-19 shutdown, Connecticut officials said state workers are processing about 20 times the number of unemployment claims they normally would.

Department of Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said Wednesday that staff have been shifted from other jobs to help process the unemployment claims. About a dozen retirees and other employees with experience handling the state’s unemployment claims have been asked to return to work.

“The surge, before it hits our hospital beds, has hit our unemployment claims,” Lamont said Wednesday. “As you know, our computer system has peaked out several times.” 

On Monday, the state Department of Labor reported that nearly 100,000 jobless claims had been filed in less than two weeks. 

“We’re pulling every lever we can to work through that backlog as quickly as possible,” said Josh Geballe, the governor’s chief operating officer. “We also have the additional layer of some additional benefits that could be coming through the federal bill … which will add additional complexity, that we’re trying to get out in front of as well.”

Refunds For College Students

Also on Wednesday, state college and university officials announced they would issue refunds or credits to students who won’t be finishing out the year on campus.

UConn said it’s refunding students a total of about $30 million in fees for housing, dining plans and study abroad programs that were halted because of COVID-19. 

The room and board refunds will range from about $1,600 to $3,200 for Storrs students and between $1,200 and $1,400 for dining plans, the university said in a statement. Students who lived in Stamford residence halls will be refunded about $2,800 to $3,100.

UConn students will get credits on their fall semester bills. Students who graduate or don’t return to the school will get refunds. 

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system will also issue refunds. President Mark Ojakian on Tuesday directed Central, Eastern, Southern and Western Connecticut state universities to credit or refund students for unused room and board.

“Amounts will vary based on university, type of housing and other factors, but students who paid room and board fees should expect a credit covering the period beginning with the closure of residence halls through the end of the spring 2020 term,” CSCU spokesperson Leigh Appleby said in an email.

UConn officials said Wednesday the financial impact of COVID-19 is far-reaching -- nearly $134 million at UConn Storrs, the school’s regional campuses and UConn Health. 

The university said it also anticipates additional losses of $18 million to $70 million in the 2020-21 academic year due to restricted international enrollment.  

At UConn Health, at least $2.4 million in new costs are expected as part of its coronavirus response. An additional $101 million in losses is expected from elective surgeries that had to be postponed due to the pandemic. 

“Without federal assistance, UConn does not have other means to recoup these losses,” UConn President Thomas Katsouleas wrote in a letter to members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation. “Raising tuition and fees to the level needed would be untenable for our students and their families, and state support of this magnitude may simply not be possible.”

Early Fishing Season

Lamont also announced this week he’s opening many lakes, ponds, rivers and streams across the state to fishing. The early opening of the fishing season, part of an executive order issued Tuesday, is intended to limit crowds that normally turn out for the traditional opening day in April.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said it will continue stocking trout, which began in February.

“During this time of social distancing, fishing should be enjoyed as [a] solitary experience or with members of the immediate household, not as a group activity,” DEEP’s Mike Beauchene said in an email. “DEEP is encouraging all anglers to follow social distancing practices. Anglers should maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others, practice good personal hygiene, stay home and away from others if they feel sick, and avoid areas where anglers or others congregate.”

Anglers will still need the proper fishing licenses, which can be obtained online

This story contains material from the Associated Press.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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