Deciding when the time is right to reopen businesses has become an exercise in threading a particularly difficult needle. Open too soon and you could see a new spike in COVID-19 cases; hang fire and you run the risk of watching your battered economy sink even further.
Although the Trump administration has issued a three-phase “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” plan, it ultimately places responsibility on state governors to make their own decisions on timing and breadth — which, it turns out, is bringing about even more confusion.
As a result, a few states — Colorado, Mississippi and Montana — have or soon will relax some of their social distancing efforts allowing certain “nonessential” businesses to reopen. Minnesota is doing the same, with Democratic Gov. Tim Walz maintaining the move will return some 100,000 residents to work.
Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, announced that all restaurants, retail businesses, and movie theaters would allowed to partially reopen by May 2 if they followed his guidelines. Another Republican governor, Bill Lee of Tennessee, said that the “vast majority” of businesses would be allowed to reopen on May 4.
One of the big test cases is Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has already allowed such businesses as barbershops, gyms, bowling alleys among others to reopen. Beginning on May 4, restaurants and movie theaters can also reopen.
President Donald Trump, who has been pushing the country to start reopening businesses since at least late March, surprisingly took issue with Kemp’s decision. “I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities which are in violation of the phase one guidelines for the incredible people of Georgia,” he said on April 21.
More importantly, the mayors of both Atlanta and Savannah have criticized Kemp’s decision. “As I look at people standing in line for haircuts and to get their nails done, what we are essentially saying in Georgia is, ‘Go bowling and we’ll have a (hospital) bed waiting on you,’” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lake Bottoms told CNN.
“It’s absolutely premature” to reopen, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson told MSNBC, saying he’s encouraging his city’s businesses to remain shut for now.
For his part, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has said an announcement on when his state might begin relaxing its coronavirus mitigation efforts and thus start reopening businesses will be made on May 20, following the receipt of recommendations from his Reopen Connecticut Advisory Board. Actual openings would probably begin in June.
However, during his April 27 briefing, he said that, with hospitalizations declining over the past several days, “that means in another seven to 10 days we can start making some announcements about places that we can go and places that can be reopened.”
Presumably that decision would be made in conjunction with New York, New Jersey and the other Northeastern states that have banded together to take a regional approach to the situation.
Meanwhile, as is the case with much of the country, criticism and some protests have been growing in volume. A pair of “CT Liberty Rallies” took place in Hartford in April, where protesters drove past the capitol and the governor’s residence, waving American flags and placards bearing messages like “No Socialism — Choose Freedom.”
“Your health is not more important than my liberties!” was painted on one car’s rear window.
The group’s organizer, Jonathan Johnson, has accused Lamont and his “billionaire friends” of overstepping legal bounds to enrich themselves at the expense of blue-collar workers, and questioned why workers at grocery stores, which have remained open throughout the pandemic, haven’t been getting sick in large numbers.
That the protests, like those in other states, prominently feature pro-Trump messaging has not escaped the notice of state Democrats.
“Connecticut’s denialist right-wing PRO-COVID crowd will gather in Hartford to demand their right to what? Infect the elderly and force more doctors and nurses to work 18-hour shifts?” the Connecticut Democratic Party posted on Facebook before the first CT Liberty Rally on April 20.
But the back-and-forth is not limited to grass-roots organizations. Stamford Republican Town Committee Chairman Fritz Blau said he considers the crisis to be “overblown” and that Democrats around the country are using the issue to help defeat Trump in November.
“We are focused on only one thing — keeping people safe and saving lives,” riposted Connecticut Attorney General William Tong. “Every action we take serves that purpose, and every order has been appropriate and absolutely necessary.
“People are frustrated and impatient,” Tong said. “I get that. I want my old life back, too.
“To those gathering in the streets right now and to the elected leaders fomenting these rallies for personal political gain — your actions put us all at risk,” he added. “It is not just about you. We need every one of us doing everything we can to give our hospitals the space they need to save as many lives as possible. That is what matters right now. We are in this together and we will get through this together.”
Meanwhile, members of Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting have submitted a nonbinding Sense of the Meeting Resolution to reopen the town’s parks and beaches, which were closed on March 22 by First Selectman Fred Camillo. RTM moderator Tom Byrne has accused Republican Camillo of “wildly” overstepping his authority in issuing that order. The resolution will be entered into the public record at the next RTM meeting on May 11.
On April 27, Camillo allowed Binney, Bruce and Byram parks to be opened for the use of walking paths only. Beginning on April 30, boat owners were to be allowed access to their vessels berthed at town marinas on two days per week, and there will be a “conditional reopening” of the Griffith E. Harris Golf Course on May 4.
“Most people I have spoken with, people who have emailed me or texted me, have been extremely supportive of the decisions to close town facilities,” Camillo said. “That being said, we also want to be able to allow use of these larger parks in a very measured way, and in a way that will not contribute to the spread of the virus.”
TRYING TO BE SENSIBLE
“The approach we are taking is data driven and will not be governed by emotions,” Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said. “We can get through this together if we stay apart.”
Danbury Republican Mayor Mark Boughton, who surprised some by appearing by teleconference last month at one of Lamont’s daily briefings to voice his support for the governor’s reopening strategy, said the issue transcends politics.
“Look, he’s done a very good job,” Boughton said. “There should be a comprehensive approach on social distancing and when to reopen, not cities and towns being left to do their own thing. This is going to be a staged, slow return to normalcy. Some things will never be ‘normal’ until we have a vaccine and/or effective treatment.”
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, who also attended the briefing by teleconference, agreed.
“The biggest danger we have is a false sense of complacency,” the Democratic mayor said. “The fact remains we are still seeing people test positive, and still have people who may be unknowingly transmitting the virus. We are not out of the woods yet.
“I know people are eager to try and get back to normal,” he continued. “We must listen to the medical professionals and experts who are studying COVID-19 on when it will be safe to slowly reopen. The best thing we can do to save lives and slow the spread of this virus is to continue practicing physical distancing.”
Even so, Norwalk has opened a walk-up window at City Hall to allow residents to pay taxes and conduct some additional business. It also reopened its yard waste facility and boat launch at Veteran’s Memorial Park — all on a limited basis. Parks and beaches could also soon reopen under certain guidelines.
Retiring Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) said he favored a county-by-county approach to reopening — something that Lamont has noted is a possibility, given the great disparity in how the virus has traversed the state. As of April 27, there were over 10,700 cases in Fairfield County and nearly 7,000 in New Haven County, but 500-plus in New London and 400-plus in Tolland counties.
“To say that you’re reopening a restaurant in Montville (in New London County) and people are going to come from all parts of the state to go there is an argument that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Fasano said.
The senator further said that more clarity was needed on the data being utilized to devise the state’s reopening strategy.
“What is the importance of testing? That eludes me,” he said. “Hospitalizations going down is good. But what are the specific goals we need to reach to set a baseline? It’s tough to change, modify and adapt behavior if you don’t know what the baseline is.”
“We want to see these businesses open and their employees bringing home paychecks as soon as possible,” said Joe Brennan, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “But the challenge of doing this safely is enormous.”
Brennan said his peers in other states are likewise “anxious to see their states fully reopen, but are cognizant of the fact that doing so haphazardly and without proper planning will cause more harm down the road.
“Connecticut businesses and the people they employ are nothing if not resilient,” he said. “That is why I’m confident that if we move forward with proper engagement from all stakeholders and bipartisan cooperation among policymakers, we will reopen our economy as safely, successfully and quickly as possible. We have no other choice.”