MERIDEN — Gov. Ned Lamont on Tuesday expressed optimism that Connecticut schools will reopen next school year hours after announcing his decision to keep schools closed for the remainder of the academic year.
Joining the Record-Journal for an interview on Facebook Live, Lamont said the new school year may even start early.
“If we continue our trends, we maintain the social distancing, if the hospitalizations and infections keep going down, we’re going to have school in the fall, or maybe even start a little bit earlier hoping that some of the kids can get up to speed, maybe do a little bit of remedial help for them,” Lamont said.
In recent weeks, Lamont said he had been holding out hope that schools could reopen.
“It broke my heart,” he said. “I thought I was going to be the education governor. I used to say all over the state, ‘We don’t have oil, we don’t have (Silicon Valley), but we have the best educated workforce in the world,’ and here we are canceling the rest of the classroom piece ... I held out as long as I could seeing if the facts on the ground changed in any way, but it’s just not safe right now.”
Lamont acknowledged reopening schools will be a complicated endeavor that will require a gradual phase in to limit each person’s contact.
“Schools are kind of gathering places, not ideal when you’re trying to limit big groups from gathering,” he said, “but I think we’ll be able to segment the classes a little bit so there’s smaller groups.”
In the meantime, Lamont said the state is turning its attention to summer schools and summer camps, which he’d like to see incorporate education components to give students more opportunities to catch up. He said the state plans to allow youth summer camps to operate this year under “some pretty strict social distancing requirements,” including allowing groups no larger than 10 to 12 people and keeping activities outdoors as much as possible.
“There’s a big difference between the contagion inside and outside. Outside is a lot safer,” Lamont said.
The RJ’s conversation with Lamont hit on a wide range of pandemic-related issues. The full interview can be viewed on the Record-Journal’s Facebook page. Here are some excerpts.
Protocol for reopening businesses
Last week, Lamont unveiled a multi-phase plan that will allow some businesses — restaurants, salons, barbershops, offices, some retail stores — to begin reopening May 20. Since then, however, the state has given little guidance on how to reopen and keep employees and customers safe. Business owners, according to Lamont, can expect guidelines “in about a week.”
Lamont said his Reopen Connecticut Advisory Board — a 43-member body made up of doctors and health experts, business groups, labor, education and government officials — has been reaching out to business owners to get ideas and hear concerns.
“Believe it or not, the businesses want to do everything they can to make sure their customers feel absolutely safe and confident,” Lamont said.
Lamont expects some businesses may wait to open after May 20 and many consumers will be slow to feel confident again going out.
“I don’t anticipate everybody flooding into that barbershop on day one, although some folks are getting a little shaggy,” Lamont said. “And I think people will self-regulate, and I think people will be careful. They’re going to be careful to make sure they go to a barbershop where they really maintain the social distancing rules, maintain the appropriate infection protocols...”
Lamont said he personally will return to reopened businesses come May 20.
“Would I do it? I would. I’ll be careful, I’m going to take a look around, I’m going to see that the people are wearing masks, I’m going to see that it’s not crowded, I’m going to see that they’re following good common sense when it comes to hygiene, and I will be going back,” he said.
Lamont didn’t have a clear answer on how reopening protocols will be enforced. He acknowledged that his social distancing and face covering requirements so far have been enforced mostly through self policing.
“We’ve had safe store rules out for a month or so … and in 98 percent of the cases, I think people are following it, although they’re getting a little frisky now with the warm weather out there,” he said. “Either neighbors say, ‘Hey, I don’t feel comfortable in here because not everyone is wearing a mask, and the proprietor hears that information, or occasionally they contact us and we get the authorities out there and they give that store owner a friendly reminder.”
Unemployment for worried employees
During the reopening phase, business owners and customers will get to decide whether reopening or going out is worth the risk, however, employees of businesses reopening could have less say.
Asked whether an employee of a reopened business would still be eligible for unemployment if they didn’t return to work because they didn’t feel safe, Lamont said employees should return as long as their employer is following the protocols he plans to release later this month.
If businesses “follow all the requirements that we’re putting in place, the strict protocols, then, yep, you should go back to work unless there’s some way you can continue to telecommute and do your work from home.”
An exception will be made for people over 65, who are more vulnerable to the virus, he added.
In deciding whether to move ahead with reopening, Lamont said some of the metrics and factors he’ll consider are compliance with social distancing guidelines, continued drops in infection and hospitalization numbers, and increased testing.
While the state has increased testing rates in recent weeks, Lamont said he’d still like to see five times more tests given daily than the current number of around 2,500.
“I’m tired of waiting for the federal government and complaining about the federal government,” Lamont said, “so we’re going to CVS, we’re going to Quest Labs, we’re going to Jackson Lab, we’re going to Yale-New Haven, we’re going to everybody and doing this ourselves, and you will see it ramp up big time over the next two or three weeks.”
Lamont called the number of infections and deaths reported among nursing home residents “tragic.” According to the latest numbers released by the state, 1,249 nursing home residents in Connecticut had died or were believed to have died from the novel coronavirus as of April 29. Those fatalities accounted for 57.6 percent of virus-related deaths statewide.
Lamont pointed out that states are recording and presenting nursing home infection and death counts differently in some cases. For instance if a nursing home resident dies from coronavirus complications after being transferred to a hospital, Connecticut records that death as a nursing home death. If a nursing home resident dies from pneumonia but had symptoms of COVID, the state classifies it as a COVID-related fatality.
Lamont said he thinks the state “did some things right” when it came to infection prevention at nursing homes, including being one of the first states to prohibit visitors and conducting extensive testing early on. The results of those early tests, however, took five or six days to get back because the state had to send them to a lab in California, Lamont said.
“By then, another 30 people could have been infected, especially in an environment like the nursing homes,” Lamont said.
The state is continuing to conduct random inspections at nursing homes to ensure protocols are being followed.
Advisory board exempt from disclosure
Some local lawmakers and legislative leaders have recently criticized Lamont for making the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Board exempt from state Freedom of Information Act requirements. Only emails and other correspondence between government officials that sit on the board will be subject to public disclosure. All other board activities are exempt.
Lamont defended his decision by pointing out that members of the board have made themselves available to answer questions once a week from reporters and twice a week from legislative leaders.
“Every week, they’re there taking questions for at least an hour. Twice a week they are grilled by legislative leadership back and forth, so they see exactly what the thought process is,” he said. “At the end of the day, these are just voluntary citizens who are contributing their time on the side, giving me their best advice. And I’m the guy making the decisions on this, and I’m held accountable.”