Lamont leans toward letting cities and towns control COVID rules

Gov. Ned Lamont speaks at a news conference on the Bridgeport Boatworks property, in Bridgeport, Conn. April 5, 2021.

Gov. Ned Lamont speaks at a news conference on the Bridgeport Boatworks property, in Bridgeport, Conn. April 5, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Gov. Ned Lamont is considering giving local mayors and first selectmen “wide” discretion to impose COVID-19 rules in their cities and towns, including mask mandates in supermarkets, restaurants, and other private businesses.

That would represent a sweeping change in pandemic decision making in Connecticut, as cities and towns are now limited in what orders they can make. They must generally follow state guidance, and Lamont has avoided carving up the state with different rules throughout the pandemic.

Despite rising coronavirus numbers, pressure from some public health advocates and tighter rules in other states, Lamont has hesitated to order new restrictions. On Wednesday, for example, the percent of daily positive tests pushed over 3 percent, although the number of people in hospitals with COVID-19 inched downward.

The governor again said Wednesday, as he has almost every day, that no mandates are needed yet despite the spread of the more contagious delta variant.

For example, New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio will require proof of vaccination for people to eat inside a restaurant, starting next month — a rule Lamont specifically declined to adopt.

But he has urged businesses and cities and towns to take whatever action they deem appropriate. And on Wednesday he indicated he would likely give a “green light” to local officials “to have a higher security standard if they think it’s necessary.”

Lamont suggested that he could grant municipalities the needed power on his own without legislative approval. His emergency authority expires Sept. 30 and he said he wants to move more decision-making to the General Assembly even before then.

“Look, we’ve got towns where less than 50 percent of the people are vaccinated. We have towns where 99 percent of the people are vaccinated so I think giving some flexibility there makes a fair amount of sense and we’ll be issuing some directives on that within a day,” Lamont said after an event in Manchester.

Asked why local officials would want to issue city or town-wide orders not in place on a statewide basis, the governor again pointed to varying vaccination rates and said he “tends to think a mayor has pretty good insight into what keeps his community safe.”

One area where the governor is willing to intervene locally is schools. He’s promised to provide guidance for public schools several weeks before kids return to classrooms, and said Wednesday that superintendents have told him they want “strong recommendations” from the state.

“Take the heat off, give us some real clarity,” he said of their comments.

Daily coronavirus numbers reported by the state Wednesday showed that hospitalizations decreased by 2 people from a day earlier, for a total of 163. Hospitalizations have been creeping up in recent weeks but are nowhere near the December high.

The percent of positive tests reported Wednesday was 3.35 percent, the highest reported for one day since April 19. The weekly positivity rate stood at 2.9 percent Wednesday — slightly up from the weekly rate of 2.8 percent reported Tuesday.

Lamont, who continues to mull a vaccine rule for state workers, appears close to ordering a mandate for nursing home workers. Asked Wednesday about Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to require long-term care staff to be vaccinated, Lamont indicated Connecticut might do the same.

“We’re definitely thinking about that,” Lamont said. “.... We know a lot of the vaccinations are wearing off in the elder community where they maybe don’t keep the antibodies as long. So I think that’s going to be a priority for us. I think we’ll have something to say on it within 24 hours.”

As for the powers of city and towns, currently they can impose restrictions on their own property, but can’t require businesses in their jurisdiction to institute mask orders. Some have started to require residents, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks when going into local government buildings.

New Haven is contemplating taking it a step further. Mayor Justin Elicker is considering a vaccine mandate for city staff.

At the Manchester event, Lamont was joined by the city’s Mayor Jay Moran, who said starting Wednesday residents are required to wear masks in public buildings. But Moran said, even if allowed, he is not interested in imposing further rules at local restaurants or other businesses at this point.

State House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said it may make sense for Lamont to grant the towns authority, as the state has more variations in cases than it did before the vaccinations. “If you’re dealing with hot spots,” Ritter said, “then that might make some sense to me.”

Ritter said the legislature could vote to give towns broad authority, but more specific the directions may best come from the governor, as they might change with new circumstances.

For much of the pandemic, Lamont resisted allowing municipal leaders to make their own decisions on how to respond.

“Before I was really worried he keeps his bar open, they shut it down over there. Everybody’s going back and forth. I thought about that as a state. I thought about that as a region,” Lamont said, referring to collaboration among Northeast governors on pandemic restrictions early on.

Now a state with one of highest vaccination rates in the country and a relatively low infection rate “it’s a little less top of the mind for us right now,” Lamont said, referring to uniform rules.

julia.bergman@hearstmediact.com