Earlier this week, two separate groups of state senators sent letters to Gov. Ned Lamont expressing their concerns about how fast and how thoroughly officials are moving ahead to reopen restaurants, hair salons, and other sectors of the CT economy next week.
State Senator Will Haskell (D-26) who represents Wilton, was one of 11 legislators who signed his name on a letter questioning “the criteria and pace of the Reopen CT strategy.” He joined other Democratic state senators who also signed, including Sen. Martin Looney (Hamden/New Haven), Sen. Julie Kushner (Bethel/Danbury), Sen. (and physician) Saud Anwar (East Hartford), Sen. Alex Kasser (Greenwich), and Sen. Derek Slap (West Hartford).
In addition to 25 detailed questions about the governor’s seven criteria for opening, the letter also included 11 recommendations, including applying criteria regionally and increasing testing to a much higher level than what Lamont is currently asking for. The recommendations were drafted by Dr. Anwar, a pulmonologist who is treating COVID-19 patients.
The second group took it one step further, writing Lamont expressly to urge him “to delay your plans to phase out Connecticut’s COVID-19 restrictions starting May 20.”
Anwar was also among this second group of senators who wrote about the number of new positive cases still occurring “at levels far beyond our ability to track, trace, and isolate potential contacts.”
“Reopening is essential–but to do it while the first wave of the pandemic is still raging will not lead to a second wave, it will simply add fuel to the first wave, delaying our eventual recovery,” they added.
Although Haskell says he has a lot of confidence in Lamont and the team the governor has assembled, he signed the letter that asks for more clarification from Lamont on the conditions for reopening.
“I wanted a little bit more clarity both for myself, but more importantly for my constituents, on what does it mean to have adequate PPE? What does it mean to have adequate hospital capacity? I want to understand the terms that they’re using as they make their decisions a little bit more,” Haskell says.
Some of the other questions the legislators have posed in the letter cover why the governor has established a state-wide policy for reopening if conditions are different throughout the state. “If Governor Cuomo sets reopen conditions by county, shouldn’t we do the same?” they ask.
They’ve pushed for other details as well, asking:
- The guidelines set by your ReOpen Advisory Group on May 1 indicate that 42,000 tests per week are required to begin reopening, but 140,000 tests per week are needed to prevent new outbreaks. When will either of these targets be met and can you assure us that sufficient testing materials can be sourced to maintain these testing levels?
- Does the state have a plan to provide in-home testing to reduce the burden on testing sites?
- How is the testing being planned for individuals with disabilities? Individuals who work in nursing homes or assisted living homes? Individuals who live in densely populated areas that are at greater risk for new outbreaks?
- What contact tracing methods are being developed? When will they be available and accessible to everyone?
- How is the app that has been talked about being tested?
In particular, Haskell said he’s unclear about why Gov. Lamont has included hair salons and barbers on the list of businesses to open in the first phase starting May 20.
“This is an industry that by definition makes social distancing impossible because of the nature of that work. I’m very surprised that that is in the opening phase of the rollout and I’m happy that nail salons, which frankly don’t seem essential, have been delayed. I understand that we’re facing an economic crisis and almost half a million people have filed for unemployment. We do need to get people back to work, but I also completely reject the notion that we have to choose between public health and economic revitalization,” Haskell said.
Making decisions too fast with too little data and not enough clarity from the right experts is a problem, Haskell added, which is what prompted him to add his name to the letter questioning the schedule for reopening.
“Gov. Lamont and our Department of Public Health, they are building this plane as they are flying it. Any oversights or any delays, they’re not because people aren’t working hard. But it’s all the more reason that we need all hands on deck and we need to be looking at a shared set of data and a shared set of prerequisites before we launch into reopening,” he said.
Something else Haskell would like to change is the way the state is approaching contact tracing.
“I would really like to see progress over the next few weeks is professionalizing our contact tracing effort. We’re really lucky that a bunch of students and professors have stepped up to manage our contact racing on a volunteer basis. But frankly, they should be paid for the work that we’re doing and we should be doing it at a far greater level,” he said.
Several of Haskell’s constituents who have lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 crisis have contacted him and said they’d be interested in working as a contact tracer. “”We have an opportunity to expand contact tracing. And that’s one area where I’ve been asking the governor’s office to provide an update to the legislature on what we might see in the weeks to come,” he added.
Does Haskell expect an answer to the letter? He and his fellow senators haven’t yet heard anything directly from Gov. Lamont, but Haskell is hopeful some answers will be forthcoming.
“Do I expect a long comprehensive response from Gov. Lamont’s administration to our letter? To your point, probably not, but I would expect before May 20 we’re going to hear from Dr. [Albert] Ko [the medical co-chair of Reopen CT Advisory Committee] and other members of Reopen CT and most importantly, the public health officials join him in a press briefing and demonstrate to the employees and small business owners and customers around the state of Connecticut, why they feel comfortable with the May 20 opening and what criteria we’ve met,” Haskell said.
It was during one of those daily briefings that Lamont addressed the legislators’ concerns. “Can we always do more? Yeah, I appreciate the ongoing concern that people have, but I think we’ve got the right balance going forward right now,” he said, referring to public health versus economic interest. “I think you have a sense that we put public health and public safety first and foremost. Whatever we do we’re doing very cautiously.”
He defended the way he’s been providing information, saying that he answers the legislators’ questions daily during his briefings and that he is sharing more details directly to legislative leaders.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that everything the reopen committee has been doing is totally transparent, especially when it came to the legislature. One of the things I’m finding is maybe you brief all the leaders, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all the other members of the legislature get the information.”