Criticizing a slow and inadequate response to COVID-19 from the federal government, Gov. Ned Lamont, along with his counterparts in New York and New Jersey, ordered a mass shutdown of restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters and banned gatherings of over 50 people on Monday.
With just takeout and delivery remaining as options in the tri-state area, the recent announcements leave small businesses in a state of uncertainty. Lamont’s Monday order follows declarations of states of emergency in Connecticut and New Haven — on March 10 and March 15, respectively — as well as a series of rapidly intensifying measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Lamont has all but ended nursing home visits and loosened requirements for hand sanitizer production, personal protective equipment, applications for family aid, hospital expansion and creation of childcare centers, among other measures. On Sunday, Lamont issued a statewide school-closure order, following the dozens of Connecticut school districts that have already suspended in-person classes. New Haven’s public schools moved to remote instruction on Friday.
“This is changing so fast,” Lamont said during a telephone press conference with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday. “We’ve got to work together on a coordinated basis.”
As of Monday morning, Connecticut has 26 confirmed COVID-19 cases, three of which are in New Haven and the majority of which are in Fairfield County. Officials warn that this figure is likely much smaller than the actual number of cases due to low testing capacity.
Lamont told CNN on Monday that Connecticut’s testing capacity is lacking despite contributions from hospitals and private labs. One contributor is Yale New Haven Hospital, which replicated the COVID-19 test late last week and plans to use it on 50 samples per day — a figure that will ideally rise to 200, provided sufficient staffing. In a Monday afternoon press conference on the steps of City Hall, Mayor Justin Elicker said that YNHH is planning to set up drive-through testing similar to what is currently available in Hartford, Greenwich, Bristol and Stamford.
From testing to public health protocol, cities and states are increasingly self-reliant in the absence of robust federal support, tri-state leadership said on Monday. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that a lack of national coordination has resulted in a “hodgepodge of closings.”
Coordination at the regional level has become increasingly important, Cuomo continued. Northeastern governors are now moving in lockstep. Monday’s decisions in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey come in the wake of similar orders in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as a Sunday restaurant-closure order from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Even before in-person service was forced to a halt, New Haven businesses were feeling the effects of COVID-19. Atticus Bookstore Cafe reported a 50 percent drop in sales over the past week and on Sunday announced that it would move to takeout and delivery only — a decision that, just one day later, became a legal requirement.
In a community email on Sunday, Atticus owner Charles Negaro Jr. asked customers to consider purchasing gift cards from his store and other local businesses. These purchases, he wrote, will provide his staff of 50 “with as much security as possible through these tough times.”
But Negaro acknowledged that this was a difficult request — many New Haveners are feeling the effects of the local and national economy grinding to a halt. In Monday’s press conference, Elicker praised Lamont’s decision to close restaurants and other businesses and encouraged New Haveners to do what they can to support the local economy.
“This is not the time to close your wallets,” Elicker said. “And I know this is difficult for me to say because a lot of people are struggling, but this is the time to help those that need it the most.”
Following Lamont’s Monday announcement, Quinnipiac University political scientist and professor and Community Foundation for Greater New Haven Chair Khalilah Brown-Dean assembled a Google Doc sharing information about local restaurants offering take-out services. The New Haven Free Public Library — which closed on Friday along with schools and senior centers — has also publicized a list of restaurants available for takeout and delivery and encourages restaurants to submit their information to the city.
New Haven Economic Development Administrator Mike Piscitelli has been in conversation with David Lehman, his counterpart at the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, about providing resources for businesses that have seen dropping sales and now have to close their doors. The DECD announced on Friday that it would defer all Small Business Express Loan payments for three months, amounting to about $5 million. Elicker also noted on Monday that city officials are in conversation with local banks about providing loans, but it is unclear whether this will manifest in the near future.
New Haven’s tight budget makes it difficult for the city to offer financial relief to struggling businesses, Elicker said on Monday. As such, he continued, New Haven is heavily reliant on state and federal partners.
Some relief is scheduled to come as a result of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which recently passed the House and contains sweeping provisions that guarantee free COVID-19 testing, relaxed work requirements for those on unemployment insurance and guarantee at least two-thirds pay for two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave, among other measures. Elicker praised the act in Monday’s press conference, saying that it will free up funds to address the current economic downturn.
But the paid-leave provisions only apply to companies with fewer than 500 employees. In addition to the businesses required to close starting 8 p.m. Monday, large retailers in New Haven are shutting down temporarily. Among them are Apple and Urban Outfitters, both located in the Shops at Yale. Each franchise has stated that it will continue to pay its employees for lost wages.
But essential retailers — including grocery stores and pharmacies, neither of which are required to close following Lamont’s order — have a different path forward. Stop & Shop, a grocery chain in the northeast with locations across Connecticut and one in New Haven, has reduced hours to allow employees to restock shelves. Stop & Shop stores will now be open 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. at most stores beginning Monday. The chain is also suspending delivery services to allow employees to prioritize in-store service, according to a Saturday press release.
Mackenzie Hawkins | firstname.lastname@example.org