A Week Of Cautious Optimism, But COVID-19 Still Kills Hundreds Of Connecticut Residents | Connecticut Public Radio

A Week Of Cautious Optimism, But COVID-19 Still Kills Hundreds Of Connecticut Residents

May 1, 2020

Connecticut’s coronavirus hospitalizations continue to decline, but the death toll is still rising. On Friday, state officials reported 82 more COVID-19 associated deaths — bringing the weekly death toll to more than 400 people. It’s a grim undercurrent in a week of cautious optimism from Gov. Ned Lamont, as he prepares to get portions of the state back to work by May 20.

This story has been updated. 

Friday marked the ninth consecutive day of hospitalization declines. State officials reported 1,592 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, down 58 people from the day prior.

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Lamont has said a 14-day decline in hospitalizations along with additional testing capacity will be key pillars of the state’s strategy to begin reopening later this month. 

But the death count grows. It’s been 52 days since Lamont declared public health and civil preparedness emergencies because of coronavirus. As of today, 2,339 people have died.

Lamont Outlines COVID-19’s ‘Sobering’ Impact On Connecticut’s Budget

Lamont warned Friday he will cancel tax relief and impose $400 million in emergency spending cuts to mitigate the multi-billion-deficit projected for the upcoming fiscal year.

Lamont also hinted he is considering a gasoline tax hike to bolster transportation funding and another round of state employee givebacks — though he later deflected questions about both.

“The numbers are sobering,” Lamont said during a televised, mid-morning press conference one day after analysts projected state revenues would decline a staggering $7 billion between now and mid-2023. 

That translates into a $934 million deficit this fiscal year, a $2.3 billion gap in the budget that begins July 1, and a $2 billion-plus shortfall in both the 2021-22 and 2022-23 fiscal years.

“I’m sorry to ask everybody, but we’re going to have to do a little more on this fiscal front,” Lamont said, adding that while he hopes to seek additional federal relief for states, Connecticut must plan for the worst.

Justice Department Urges Renters To Report Sexual Harassment

Connecticut’s U.S. Attorney reported Friday that the Justice Department has received reports of landlords seeking sexual favors from renters who are looking to defer rent because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Such actions are in violation of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, disability, or sex, said John Durham, U.S. Attorney for the district of Connecticut, in a statement.

“Many landlords have responded to this circumstance with understanding and care, and are working with tenants as this crisis persists,” Durham said. “However, there have been reports that some landlords have responded to requests to defer rent payments with demands for sexual favors and other acts of unwelcome sexual conduct.”

Connecticut has placed a temporary freeze on evictions because of the public health emergency. Lamont has also extended a 60-day grace period for paying April rent, which gives tenants two months before an April payment is due to a landlord.

“This behavior is not tolerated in normal times, and certainly will not be tolerated now,” Durham said. “I encourage all victims and witnesses to report any instances of this despicable and criminal conduct immediately.”

Durham said all victims and witnesses of tenant harassment should immediately report it to the Civil Rights Division by calling (844) 380-6178 or emailing fairhousing@usdoj.gov. 

With Nice Weather In The Forecast, Parks Prepare For Temporary Closures

State park officials have been putting a temporary cap on visitors to encourage social distancing and stop the spread of coronavirus. And with the weather getting nicer, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said Friday more closures should be expected in the coming weeks.

Most of these closures are temporary. The DEEP has set lower visitor capacity limits and when those limits are hit, a park will close to new visitors for the remainder of the day. 

Many popular parks like Sleeping Giant, Penwood, and Wadsworth Falls have closed because of this. “Gillette Castle State Park, Hammonasset Beach State Park, as well as other shoreline parks, have also reached capacity in recent weeks, and will likely continue to have capacity-related closures,” the DEEP said in a Friday statement. 

But some state park land will now be closed for the duration of Connecticut’s public health emergency, the DEEP said, because of a failure to accommodate proper social distancing recommendations.

“To date, DEEP has closed Kent Falls State Park and Seaside State Park, the boardwalk connector that runs from the parking lot at Silver Sands State Park, and the tower at Sleeping Giant State Park,” the DEEP said.

Picnics have also been banned during the coronavirus emergency and groups are limited to immediate household members of no more than five people. 

The agency is encouraging residents looking to get outside to seek less-traveled state parks through a listing of all state parks and forests on its website.

Lamont Signs Order To Temporarily Waive Contracting Standards 

State contracting standards will be temporarily modified through an executive order Lamont signed Thursday – his 34th – since declaring public health and civil preparedness emergencies more than 50 days ago.

In the order, the governor temporarily waives certain rules that usually govern state contracts, such as competitive bidding for supply purchases and contractual services. 

Citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Lamont will modify those standards to “expedite” what his administration is calling the “essential services” needed to combat the spread of COVID-19 around the state.

As a result, the order temporarily waives contracting rules surrounding the purchase of goods and services like COVID testing, cleaning, security, and other “critical care” supports such as food, housing, and state delivery of such supports.

“It is critical to the protection of the public health and safety that state agencies be able to procure essential services in high demand and in low supply as expeditiously as possible to limit the harm of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the order said.

Senate Republican Leader Wants To See Connecticut Reopen Sooner

On Thursday, Lamont said Connecticut’s shuttered economy could begin to reopen in phases on May 20, starting with a limited number of businesses abiding by strict social distancing.

Less than a day later, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano wrote to Lamont expressing his concerns about waiting until May 20th to start the process. 

“Connecticut's large retailers are already open and have been operating throughout the pandemic by implementing multiple safety precautions,” Fasano wrote. “Why can't smaller retail stores, which have less foot traffic and are easier to clean and manage, reopen next week using the same methodology as the big stores that have been open even during the peak of the pandemic?”

Lamont has said any reopening strategy is dependent on adequate testing and a persistent decline in coronavirus cases, both of which he said Thursday are not at the levels public health experts recommend before the state moves forward with any broad re-opening strategy. 

“I can understand waiting another seven to 10 days,” Fasano wrote. “I cannot understand waiting another 20 days, 30 days or even longer to start safe reopening. People are scared about their economic future.”

Call Grows For Governor To Create Aid Fund For Undocumented Workers

Unions and community activists in Connecticut are renewing calls for the governor to establish a fund to help undocumented workers who are suffering during the pandemic.

A May Day event Friday for International Workers Day, included car caravans in Hartford and New Haven, as well a virtual rally held via Zoom.

Speakers called on the state government to prioritize poor communities in planning for economic recovery.

Catherine John from New Haven is with Unidad Latina en Accion.

“We can do better than this, for this to be the most powerful country in the world, it is weak. It should not have taken COVID for us to say let’s respect the black, brown and immigrant workers,” John said.

The combined organizations want to see all workers who are still on the job be given hazard pay, proper protective equipment and guaranteed paid sick leave.

Asked during his late-morning press briefing Friday about the demands made at the rally, Lamont did not address the specific difficulties of undocumented communities. He reiterated the steps that the administration is taking to provide equipment, testing and childcare for all front line workers.

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom set aside millions of dollars to support undocumented workers ineligible for unemployment benefits and disaster relief due to their immigration status.

Education Groups Speak About Need For Funding

A coalition of parents, educators, and staff wrote Friday that continued state investment in education is “critical” as distance learning goes on and districts develop plans about how to move forward with teaching students during a global pandemic. 

Lamont has not announced if students in Connecticut will return to school this spring. He’s expected to address the issue early next week, but he has indicated a statewide return this spring is unlikely. 

In their letter, the coalition cautioned Lamont against making any reductions in state aid to school districts. The group said federal stimulus dollars for education should not supplant planned state aid to districts and that educator and support jobs need to be protected as Connecticut stares down a projected $7 billion budget deficit between now and the middle of 2023. 

“Cuts in essential services such as education deepen economic hard times, damage local property values, and dramatically slow the state’s recovery,” the coalition wrote. 

Members of the coalition include: The Connecticut Association of School Superintendents, the Connecticut Education Association, the Connecticut Association of Schools, the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut, the Connecticut Parent Teacher Association, and the Connecticut Federation of School Administrators.

Connecticut Public Radio’s Harriet Jones and the Connecticut Mirror’s Keith Phaneuf contributed to this story.