May 20 would be the day that currently closed businesses, including restaurants, stores and hair and personal care shops, could take baby steps toward a new normal in Connecticut, with mandatory social distancing and aggressive sanitizing in place.
The slow reopening depends on a decline in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continuing, Gov. Ned Lamont and the co-chairs of his Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group said Thursday.
Restaurants would be limited to outdoor service, with no bar areas open. Some offices would be allowed to open, but the state would encourage companies to keep employees working from home, if possible.
In the initial phases, people over 70 would be encouraged to to stay home. Everyone in public would be required to wear a mask, especially restaurant employees. Restaurant restrooms, in particular, would be targeted for relentless sanitizing, especially in light of the virus’s ability to linger in the air and on some hard surfaces.
“I hope people follow the rules,” said Indra Nooyi, co-chair of the advisory group, during a 70-minute tele-conference Thursday with reporters and Lamont in the State Capitol.
The announcement came on a day when 89 new fatalities brought the statewide total to 2,257 in the pandemic.
A decline of 41 hospitalizations, for a current total to 1,650,marked the eighth straight day of reduced COVID-19 inpatient numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests 14 days of decreasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as the benchmark for states to consider reopening.
The May 20 date is still just a proposal by the advisory group. Lamont said he will make a decision public next week on whether to close school for the rest of the academic year. Many people expect schools not to reopen until the fall at soonest.
The virus has affected older state residents the most, with 58 percent of the fatalities in people 80 or older, and 80 percent in people age 70 or older, according to the state Department of Public Health.
“We know that certain members of our community are hit particularly hard by this pandemic,” Lamont said. “We’re going to focus on those communities: the African American community, the urban communities, those who live in denser populations. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do, because if you want to make sure this pandemic stays under control, we want to do everything we can to make sure there are no flare-ups around the region and around the world.”
Under the tentative reopening plans, jobs representing 30 percent of the more than 400,000 people who have filed for jobless claims would restart. While there are about 160,000 restaurant employees statewide, many of them idled in the shutdown, outdoor dining-only would not return them all to work.
“We’re going to have to work our way through it,” said Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer.
In response to the outline, Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, expressed a mixed response.
“We fear it would not be nearly a big enough step to save thousands of restaurants on the brink of going out of business,” Dolch said in an early evening written statement. “We’re asking the group to be flexible as they refine these plans, and we stand ready to help them do it. There are ways to project customers while still opening the economy, and we have put those ideas on the table.”
Asked what he envisions for the state in the summertime, Lamont said, “I think that the consumers and the people of Connecticut you might find are cautious.”
He stressed the need to watch what scientists and public health officials say, and said he would rethink plans for allowing stores and restaurants to reopen if hospitalization rates rise again.
As many as as 42,000 state residents would tested each week by May 20 — a dramatic rise from about 15,000 a week at the current rate.
“Testing gives the consumer confidence that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe, even at, say that open-air restaurant,” Lamont said, stressing that much more personal protective equipment has arrived in the state and will become more readily available.
Lamont and Dr. Albert Ko, a Yale epidemiologist and co-chairman of the advisory committee, acknowledged that many concerns remain to be worked out — such as restaurant patrons using bathrooms, the way tables are laid out and so forth. Generally, the idea will be to meticulously clean and disinfect surfaces and maintain six feet of distance between customers who aren’t living in the same household.
“Certainly the recommendations are going to be to continue to shelter in place for the elderly,” Ko said. “This is a virus which is very transmissible. This is a virus that’s not going to go away, even with our best public health and control measures. We are always going to have the threat of resurgence.”
Ko doesn’t see an effective vaccine coming for another year or a year-and-a-half.
The various calculations for reopening include the proximity, length and intensity of personal contacts, such as one-on-one care in barber shops and hair and nail salons. Decisions by Lamont are from discussions with industry professionals and business groups. Labor interests are also represented in the group, though the AFL-CIO said Thursday that four labor representatives out of nearly 50 people are too few.
Lamont pegged the total value of non-government economic activity in the state at about $245 billion a year. About $106 billion of that remains open, including “essential” retail, construction and manufacturing that has continued during the pandemic. Still, he said, 11 percent of the newly unemployed came from those sectors just the same, because of loss of demand.
Another 29 percent of the unemployed — about $38 billion in total output — comes from businesses that could have stayed open but didn’t, including some child care facilities, landscaping and some stores.
About $77 billion of state output is from the sectors that are still open with employees working remotely, including technology, insurance, finance and professional services. That group accounts for have about 12 percent of the unemployment currently.
Finally, about $24 billion of the state’s economy, just 10 percent, is shuttered — restaurants, salons, bars, tourist attractions, events — that chunk accounts for 48 percent of the people thrown out of work, Lamont said.
“While they’re not a big piece of our overall economy, they are an enormous piece of our unemployment rate,” he said.
Nooyi said it is premature to talk about how many employees would return to work right away.
“It’s consumer demand and if Georgia is an example, consumers are staying away,” said Nooyi, noting that the southern state’s attempt to reopen has indicated a very tentative consumer base that is mostly staying home. “So we have to figure out how to do marketing programs to bring consumers back into these establishments.”
She believes that by mid-June it will become clearer which employees are returning to work.
Kaitlyn Krasselt contributed to this story.