James Larson

As the novel coronavirus sweeps the world, government officials and community stakeholders are taking proactive measures to reduce the spread of the virus in New Haven and Connecticut at large.

In the Elm City, Mayor Justin Elicker on Sunday announced a state of emergency effective through Sept. 14 unless terminated sooner — a move that allows the city to receive federal compensation for money spent to combat the spread of COVID-19. New Haven’s announcement follows analogous moves by Gov. Ned Lamont on March 10 and by President Donald Trump on March 13. In addition to Sunday’s announcement, Elicker has also, in recent days, closed all public schools indefinitely and issued an executive order implementing half occupancy for city establishments, constituting a sharp uptick from earlier suggestions regarding crowd sizes.

“Given the growing spread of this virus in our city, state, and country, I am declaring a state of emergency in the City of New Haven to protect the public health of our residents,” Elicker said in a Sunday press release. “There is no doubt that COVID-19 will continue to spread in our community, and I will take every measure appropriate to limit exposure to our residents.

“I have also made the decision to close City Hall to the public tomorrow, and indefinitely. We are curtailing all activities except critical functions until further notice.”

In keeping with this protocol, city employees “not critical to operations” will not report to work. In response to the News’ request for comment, Communications Director Gage Frank said on Sunday that which employees are “not critical” — and whether those employees will be paid if they cannot complete their work remotely — are both “ongoing labor question[s].” He anticipates further updates in the coming days.

The announcement comes amid two positive COVID-19 tests in the Elm City and a third presumed case. These numbers contribute to Connecticut’s total of 21 confirmed cases as of Sunday morning, with the highest concentration in Fairfield County.

THE CITY’S RESPONSE

The city began thinking through its COVID-19 response over a month ago, when a student attending a Yale Model United Nations conference from China exhibited influenza symptoms, prompting the conference to terminate early. The student tested negative for COVID-19 on Jan. 31.

Two weeks later, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., joined Elicker for a Feb. 14 press conference criticizing cuts to the Center for Disease Control, World Health Organization and National Institute of Health in Trump’s proposed 2020–21 budget. At the press conference, Health Director Maritza Bond and then-Acting Community Services Administrator Dr. Mehul Dalal expressed that the city relies heavily on federal guidelines to establish local protocol.

Those guidelines include social distancing, thorough hand-washing and large event cancellations — all of which formed the core of New Haven’s early response. At a tabletop conversation on Feb. 26, over two dozen local officials and stakeholders gathered to discuss the city’s emergency protocol in the event of a local COVID-19 case. The conversation focused on the nuts and bolts of how the city would respond to a call from an individual exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, from crowd control to hospital transportation.

In late February, these protocols were precautionary. Now, New Haven has seen its first two confirmed cases, and the city has rapidly escalated its response to the global pandemic over the past week.

On March 9, Elicker announced that New Haven would cancel its annual St. Patrick’s Day parade — an event that has become the largest single-day spectator event in the state, according to the event’s website, and provides an influx of customers to local businesses. He, Bond and Dalal also recommended that New Haveners postpone events with over 100 attendees. 

Two days later, the mayor announced the closure of Nathan Hale School after a parent who had been on campus was suspected to have come in contact with COVID-19. On Thursday, Elicker followed this announcement with more sweeping action: All New Haven schools closed indefinitely starting Friday. On Saturday, the city published a list of the 37 schools at which families that relied on school-provided meals can pick up breakfast and lunch on weekdays. 

In addition to schools, libraries and senior centers have also closed their doors until further notice. City librarian John Jessen has informed residents that the library will automatically renew any materials currently checked out through April 30 — a date to be adjusted if necessary.

The city ramped up its response on March 13 with an executive order implementing half-occupancy for all Elm City establishments, including restaurants, movie theaters, concert venues and other gathering places. The order is effective through April 15, subject to change.

One day after this executive order, New Haven reported its first positive COVID-19 test, underscoring the urgency of social distancing and other preventative measures.

“We have been anticipating this inevitable moment and anticipate many more cases,” Elicker said in a Saturday press release. “Our team at City Hall is working to respond to this rapidly developing situation and anticipate we will implement additional measures in the coming days to keep our residents safe and healthy.”

Elicker urged Elm City residents exhibiting symptoms to call physicians before showing up in person, in keeping with national guidelines. He also emphasized the importance of following CDC and local health department guidelines, practicing proper hygiene and avoiding all unnecessary social contact.

Part of social distancing, Elicker implored in a Facebook post on Saturday, includes staying home from religious services. Elicker cited the outbreak in New Rochelle, New York — a city just over 50 miles from New Haven — as an example of a COVID-19 explosion that resulted in part from religious service attendance, much like the case of South Korea. According to comments on the Facebook post, Trinity Baptist Church, Center Church on the Green, United Church on the Green and Shambhala Meditation Center of New Haven heeded the mayor’s advice and moved to online services.

“The great irony of this virus is that it is bringing us spiritually together by forcing us to physically stay apart,” Elicker wrote.

Elicker’s Sunday declaration of a state of emergency is the latest installment of New Haven’s quickly intensifying response. In addition to the state of emergency, Elicker announced that City Hall is “curtailing all activities except critical functions until further notice.” Non-essential city employees have been instructed not to report to work — a measure that Elicker encourages local businesses to adopt as well, while providing remote work opportunities and paid leave.

LAMONT’S EXECUTIVE ORDERS

At the state level, Gov. Ned Lamont on March 10 declared a public health and civil preparedness emergency, in line with governors of close to 40 states. Washington became the first state to declare an emergency on Feb. 29 after its first COVID-19 death, followed by California.

Since the declaration, Lamont has issued three executive orders capping event sizes, allowing for restrictions on nursing home visitation and relaxing requirements for a range of state services and pharmaceutical practices.

The first of these came out on March 12 and addressed a variety of public health measures. Lamont limited the size of gatherings to 250 people and — amid mass school closures across the state — waived the 180-day school year requirement. Lamont also authorized the DMV to extend renewal deadlines and relaxed attendance requirements for police training academies to allow social distancing.

Additionally, this executive order authorized the commissioner of public health to restrict the number, category and frequency of nursing home visitors. But the commissioner was required to allow visits from at least one person designated by each nursing home patient as well as attorneys and other legal actors, provided that sufficient protections are in place.

The next day, Lamont replaced this directive with a new one: that the commissioner of public health can issue “any and all orders restricting entrance into nursing home facilities, residential care homes or chronic disease hospitals that she deems necessary to protect the health and welfare of patients, residents and staff.”

Lamont’s March 13 order aligns with the latest CDC updates and new measures announced by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on the same day. In its most aggressive measures yet, CMS now recommends that nursing homes restrict all visitors effective immediately, with exceptions for compassionate care in end-of-life situations.

On March 14, Lamont issued a third executive order suspending in-person meeting requirements for public agencies and waiving a registration requirement for hand sanitizer manufacturers, allowing pharmacists to make the product. Additionally, the order suspended garbing requirements for non-hazardous compounding of sterile pharmaceuticals, meaning that pharmacists no longer have to don the personal protective equipment — including masks — normally required for handling non-hazardous materials. This provision was prompted by an “imminent shortage of personal protective equipment” and requires that pharmacists document all deviations from normal garbing procedures.

The March 14 order also addresses aspects of the social safety net as families and individuals find their lives increasingly disrupted and put at risk by COVID-19 developments. The state’s social services commissioner is authorized to waive in-person interview requirements for temporary family assistance applicants. Additionally, the order authorizes the commissioner to “consider the effects of … a pandemic or the response to it as good cause” for temporary assistance. Now, applicants can request assistance by phone and online.

The state’s commissioner of early childhood is now authorized to waive any requirements — including licensing requirements — for childcare services in order to maintain a sufficient capacity thereof. Childcare is a primary concern for many working parents whose children are no longer in school due to widespread closures. Connecticut school closures will affect over 320,000 students across 72 districts.

Finally, the executive director of the Connecticut Office of Health Strategy is authorized to waive any requirements she deems necessary to ensure adequate healthcare provision. Specifically, this will allow hospitals to rapidly open temporary facilities without going through the normal certification process, which requires demonstration of need.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu