The reasoning behind the state of Connecticut’s new $10,000 fine for businesses that violate COVID protocols, which went into effect Thursday, was clearly to get people’s attention. Consider that much accomplished.
Previous fines, which ran as high as $500 for overcrowding or other practices that could encourage the spread of the virus, were simply not high enough, officials likely reasoned. Make the penalty something that could pack a real financial punch and everyone will notice. A $10,000 fine will do that.
It remains uncertain whether such a fine would ever be enforced. The state must hope it’s enough to threaten such a severe levy to change people’s behavior. With so many businesses on the edge of solvency with months of reduced customer traffic, few could withstand such a blow.
There are a number of factors driving the state’s new harsher tack. One is the start of the holiday shopping season, which began in earnest the day after Thanksgiving and which most years provides scenes of crowded stores and overflowing parking lots — exactly the kind of situation that is most likely to contribute to the spread of COVID. Gov. Ned Lamont said the fine is targeted toward those who may have ignored previous warnings, like big box stores.
“They’re going to pay attention and have a number that they’re going to respond to,” he said.
Another factor is the coming of winter, which despite this weekend’s mild temperatures is due to arrive shortly. Colder temperatures will mean more people inside, again heightening the risk of transmitting the virus. What might have worked in June is no longer going to be effective.
As has been true since the pandemic’s first days, there are competing priorities. One is to keep everyone safe and the other is to do as little harm as possible to the economy. But while businesses can be brought back and the economy rebuilt, there is no such remedy for the lives lost or damaged due to the virus. The first priority must be limiting its spread.
But neither should we do unnecessary harm to local businesses. Everyone needs to abide by the state’s rules, including those that require face masks, but a fine of this size should be limited to those who would not be forced out of business by incurring it.
The solution that’s been needed for months is a massive federal effort to pay businesses to stay closed and let them stay afloat until a reliable vaccine is ready for mass distribution. Barring such a step, which is beyond the capacity of state and local governments, the toll paid by local businesses is guaranteed to be severe. There is simply no way for many of them to survive. But such a move from Washington has not been forthcoming.
Unless and until that happens, everyone is on their own trying to figure out a way forward. Local health departments must keep close watch on businesses that could pose a risk of spreading the virus, and steps to limit the damage should be a priority. But beyond that, the same rules apply. We must work together, but stay apart, if we are to weather this crisis.