October 19, 2020

State moves into Phase 3 of business reopenings

A third phase of business reopenings began in Connecticut Thursday, loosening restrictions on occupancy for restaurants and other businesses as well as expanding the amount of people allowed at indoor and outdoor entertainment venues. “The reason why we are able to have a discussion about even entering into Phase 3 is because of Connecticut residents’ collective actions to fight the spread of COVID-19,” Gov. Ned Lamont said.

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The big story

Connecticut enters Phase 3 of business reopenings: The state’s coronavirus infection rate has been slowly creeping up but a third phase of business reopenings moved forward Thursday, allowing restaurants to seat more customers indoors, churches to hold larger indoor worship services and performing arts venues that have been shuttered since March to reopen at 50% capacity. “We just wanted to give our restaurants a little bit of flexibility,” Lamont said Monday. “They’ve been managing very well when it comes to the protocols, and we’re going to stick to that plan.” Lamont had said he would only consider postponing the third phase of reopening if the state’s rate of positive coronavirus tests jumped to between 3% and 5%. After staying below 1% for much of the late summer, it has now hovered around 1.5%. On Thursday, Lamont said he recommended cities and towns that have local increases in cases (including Norwich and New London) not move forward with the loosening of restrictions on businesses, though he is ultimately leaving those decisions up to local officials. Even as he authorizes restaurants to seat more customers indoors, Lamont said he would prefer to continue to dine outside. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, which was published in September, found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about twice as likely as others to have dined at a restaurant within the previous two weeks.

Five things you may have missed

Police unions line up behind GOP candidates: Across Connecticut, police unions, including those who have strayed away from political activity before, are endorsing Republicans running for the state legislature, in many cases targeting Democratic incumbents who voted in favor of a wide-ranging police accountability bill in a special session this summer. “This unprecedented move is necessary in light of the legislative and other attacks on Law Enforcement in recent months,” John Rosetti, president of the Manchester Police Officers Association, wrote when his union endorsed Republican Brian Marois in the 13th House District. Glastonbury’s police union also backed Marois, the first time they’d endorsed a candidate for state office. The endorsement, union President David Goncalves said last month, was made “because we could no longer remain silent while politicians threaten our profession.” Marois’ opponent, Democratic Rep. Jason Doucette, has defended his vote for the bill, saying it contained “widely supported reforms” and was “a step towards safer communities for all.”

State colleges struggling with budget deficits: Connecticut’s four regional universities and dozen community colleges face a $69 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year driven largely by a drop in enrollment at the community colleges and reduce occupancy of university dorms. The budget update, provided to the Board of Regents for Higher Education Wednesday, is better than a projected $91 million shortfall that had been forecast last month. But officials said they were surprised by a 15% drop in community college enrollment. They had expected enrollment at those schools to increase due to the pandemic as those who lost jobs might look to go back to school or high school graduates whose families’ financial situations deteriorated may opt to start at a community college. Officials had expected dorms at the four universities to be at about 75% occupancy but in reality, on-campus housing is only 53% full, leading to a steep decline in housing and meal plan fees.

White House’s Dr. Birx warns of coronavirus spread in Northeast: During a visit to Hartford Thursday, Dr. Deborah Birx, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, warned of “troubling signs” of a coronavirus resurgence in states across the Northeast, urging people to continue to wear masks and social distance as the colder weather forces more gatherings indoors, where the virus may spread through the air easier than previously known. Birx said recent upticks are “very different” from the rampant spread of the coronavirus in March and April. She warned against small indoor gatherings where people take their masks off to eat, drink and socialize. The virus is no longer spreading as fast in work or school settings but rather within families and social groups, she said. Many people, Birx said, rationalize taking masks off because the people they are with appear healthy, but those who are infected often don’t show symptoms right away.

Blumenthal a key figure in upcoming Supreme Court fight: As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal will play an important role in the upcoming confirmation battle over Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Blumenthal has already said he won’t support Barrett and has refused to meet with her, objecting along with other Democrats to what he sees as a rushed process to confirm a new justice ahead of Election Day. The Connecticut Democrat and other members of the committee will begin questioning Barrett on Tuesday. Complicating what was already expected to be a bitter battle over the nomination, several of Blumenthal’s colleagues on the committee have contracted COVID-19 as part of an outbreak involving President Donald Trump and his top aides and dozens of White House staff. “I will be insisting that every senator and staff be tested twice before they enter that room,” Blumenthal told Roll Call.

Trump administration sues Yale over affirmative action: The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Yale University Thursday, escalating a yearslong effort by the Trump administration to roll back affirmative action policies at universities nationwide. The lawsuit comes after a two-year DOJ investigation released in August determined that race is “the determinative factor” in hundreds of admissions at Yale, effectively discriminating against Asian American and white applicants with comparable academic credentials to Black applicants who are accepted to the university, investigators said. The Justice Department ordered Yale not to consider race or national origin in its upcoming undergraduate admission cycle or face legal action. Yale refused, and the lawsuit was filed. University President Peter Salovey said in an email to students that Yale “does not discriminate against applicants of any race or ethnicity.” He called the charges baseless and said the university “look[s] forward to defending these policies in court.”

Odds and ends

The Danbury City Council voted Thursday to rename the city’s sewer plant after comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” putting to an end a playful feud between Oliver and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton. The back-and-forth began after Oliver, during an unrelated segment on juries, offered a scorching attack on Danbury. Boughton replied, jokingly, that he would name the plant after Oliver because it’s “full of [expletive]” just like him. Oliver relished the attention and offered $55,000 in donations to local nonprofits to make the renaming happen. … Rep. Joe Polletta, R-Watertown, has tested positive for COVID-19, he said Friday. Polletta said he believes he became infected after encountering a top aide to Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary who has since contracted the virus. O’Leary, as well as Waterbury’s police chief, have also tested positive. Polletta, who is asymptomatic, plans to quarantine at home. “I feel great, but we have to follow the rules so that is what I’m doing,” he told the Republican-American newspaper. … Linda McMahon raised nearly $83 million through the end of August for the pro-Trump super PAC she left her post as head of the federal Small Business Administration to run in the leadup to Trump’s bid for reelection. That includes $4.5 million that she’s contributed herself. “The overwhelming support shows the momentum for Donald J. Trump as we enter the last 33 days of this campaign,” McMahon said on Fox News recently. McMahon, who lives in Greenwich, ran twice for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, losing in 2010 and 2012 to Blumenthal and Sen. Chris Murphy, respectively. … Melissa Schlag, the former Haddam first selectwoman who made national headlines in 2018 when she knelt silently during the Pledge of Allegiance during a board of selectmen meeting, died Oct. 2 at the age of 46. Schlag, who had been treated for cancer, was a well-known environmentalist and served one term as the town’s chief elected officer from 2013-2015. “A lightning rod for controversy, she was equally vilified and admired,” Rep. Christine Palm, a Democrat whose district includes Haddam, said. … Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, issued a brief apology Tuesday after a vulgar and insulting note she left in a neighbor’s mailbox after a parking dispute caused a stir on social media. “Dear foreclosed loser, listen close [expletive]. The next time you come at me, you better know who the [expletive] you are dealing with,” the note, left in a mailbox read. Bristol Democrats said it was “cruel and childish” that Pavalock-D’Amato would refer to her own constituents as “losers.” In a brief statement, Pavalock-D’Amato apologized for “any inconvenience or misunderstanding” she had caused but didn’t specifically address the language in the note.

Russell Blair can be reached at rblair@courant.com.

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