DANBURY — This city of 85,000 is the new frontline in Connecticut’s campaign to beat back a sudden but slight increase in the coronavirus pandemic.
So, Gov. Ned Lamont on Tuesday morning joined Mayor Mark Boughton to support distance learning until October, shutting down athletic fields and scaling back live church services, while promoting free COVID testing facilities.
A popular boat launching spot on Candlewood Lake will also be closed starting Wednesday.
International travel, COVID “fatigue,” parties on the lake, and even the weeklong power outages downtown from the tropical storm this month are being blamed for the increase, which officials want to keep from spreading to other municipalities as the state maintains an overall infection rate under 1 percent in recent months.
Danbury’s current rate of infection is about 7 percent.
“We’re doing these things because we want to make sure that we protect our residents,” Boughton said. “These steps that we are taking are measured, they’re reasonable, they’re rational, and it’s because we’re concerned. We can pull back on them and we certainly intend to pull back on them as fast as possible. We know people have got COVID fatigue. We get it, but at the end of the day we’ve got to make sure our folks are healthy.”
“It’s not a surge, but it’s an uptick,” Lamont told reporters outside City Hall. Forty four new COVID cases were reported on Friday and another 15 on Monday. “And we’re going to come down hard on upticks like this.” He remembered meeting Boughton at Danbury Hospital when the first COVID case in the state was reported on March 6.
“It happened relatively quickly,” Lamont said of the new increase. He stressed the need to test more people. “We are going to prioritize Danbury in terms of making sure we get those results back, so we can track and trace and limit the spread. Right now, it’s not spreading beyond Danbury.”
The governor is using the city as a possible testing ground for the entire state, if COVID, responsible for 4,463 Connecticut deaths, spreads at a time when most public-school officials are planning a return to classes in early September.
“It’s going to be a bit of a journey,” Lamont said. “And it’s not going to be a straight line. When you have to change course, public health comes first. If we hit this hard in Danbury and it doesn’t spread beyond, we can continue to make good progress across the state.”
State Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, who is a co-chairman of the legislative Energy & Technology Committee, said one of the spikes is directly linked to neighborhoods that were the longest without power, particularly downtown.
“I think that’s an important concept to get out there,” Arconti said, adding that he hopes legislation can be taken up in special session next month to somehow address the issues. Boughton said it became clear that after the power outages, more and more COVID cases occurred in those affected neighborhoods.
Lamont recalled that in March, the coronavirus created early infections in Danbury and southwestern Connecticut, before gradually working into New Haven and Hartford counties.
“We’re going to follow that very closely,” Lamont said. “A lot of the outage here was in neighborhoods that are congested, often multi-generational housing, people getting together to get that air conditioning. I think maybe Danbury was maybe hit a little disproportionately on that front. We’ve got to track that in all our cities. This may be the canary in the coal mine.”
“If we have cooperation from everyone, then I believe that we can work together to stop the spread,” said Kara Punty, the city’s acting health director. “We are seeing a lot of spread among small family gatherings. We are trying to ask people to stay socially distanced if they are going to have a family gathering and to limit the amount of togetherness that we have.”
Sharon Adams, president of Danbury and New Milford hospitals, said that 700 COVID patients have passed through Danbury Hospital and more than 42,000 coronavirus tests have been administered.
“We see this little uptick as something that we can just continue to work together at, and do not see it as something that we cannot conquer easily,” Adams said. “All we need to do is socially distance, wear a mask and definitely use your community testing, if you need to.”
Boughton said COVID has been contracted on city athletic fields, and he’s particularly concerned about the spread among children.
“We think it’s really the benches and being close together,” Boughton said, adding that he attended games where neither parents in the stands, nor children on the benches were wearing masks. “We’ve seen some spread in soccer. Baseball. We’re seeing it happen.”
He said many city residents have dual citizenship and have been going back and forth internationally without completing questionnaires that the state requires. The children in the school system speak 45 languages, Boughton noted. The window to test, diagnose and trace is relatively tight, he said.
“We want to make sure that we can slow the spread, and we only have a week and a half to do that,” Boughton said. “Once a week and a half goes by, if you haven’t taken the right steps, if you haven’t done the right things, it can become a runaway freight train.”
By late afternoon, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection announced that starting Wednesday, the Lattins Cove state boat launch will be closed, and parking lot capacity will be reduced to 50 percent at Squantz Cove state boat launch.
The local Community Health Center recently added testing sites this week due to the increase in cases in the city, which led the state to issue a COVID-19 alert in Danbury on Friday.
In addition to Danbury Public Schools, Western Connecticut State University and the Danbury campus of Naugatuck Valley Community College will also start classes online, with WestConn students not allowed to return to residence halls for at least two weeks.