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Lamont, tribes need to agree on reopening

Wednesday May 20, 2020, will be noted in history as the day that Connecticut began to reopen from weeks of pandemic-imposed isolation and the cessation of business. Today won't be "normal" as we know normalcy. But the time has arrived to gingerly set foot on a new way of living. We slowly emerge because medical signs are that we can, but also because economic signs are that we must.

We can expect, and ought to forgive, the kind of confusion that had hair salons and barbers opening today and then not. The vociferous concerns of some stylists for their own and their customers' safety won a delay until June from Gov. Ned Lamont. Unsurprisingly, the change came as an unwelcome shock to some of their peers. Livelihoods are at stake, as well as lives, and both arguments need to be heard.

The much larger, highly concentrated casino industry, its employees and customers urgently need the same consideration. In an editorial just last week, The Day called for the governor to engage with the tribal gaming authorities on what can be done to support laid-off workers and plan for reopening of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Together, the state's two tribal casinos employed tens of thousands at the time of the March 17 shutdown, and created business and jobs for a broad support industry of small and large companies.

Their collective impact on eastern Connecticut weighs so heavily that a bipartisan group of the region's legislative delegation wrote to the governor seeking help in addressing the resulting economic distress when the two casinos voluntarily closed — even though, as sovereign nations, they were not obliged to follow Lamont's executive directives.

In the past week, Mohegan Sun developed a plan to reopen June 1, which the governor said Monday would be "premature." The Mohegans' chairman, James Gessner, said the same day that Mohegan Sun does not yet have a firm date for reopening but meanwhile is investing heavily in safety plans that refit, rearrange, and curtail user spaces.

Once again The Day urges the Lamont administration to collaborate with the tribes. Just saying no is not enough, and it could add to the likelihood that Mohegan Sun will go ahead soon, as it legally can. For their part, tribal gaming authorities should invite serious scrutiny of their plans so state officials responsible for the safety of Connecticut's population can can judge for themselves whether the arrangements will suffice.

Lamont noted that the age of patrons, the indoor setting and the use of alcohol make the casino setting risky, and that other governors agree. Working with the region's other state governors has strengthened Connecticut's response and added perspective. Their collective wisdom should carry weight with the tribes, who should also note that their competitors in nearby states may not be able to open soon.

Both the state and the tribes have economic and safety advantages to gain from consulting on the reopening. A compromise opening date could emerge. Or, if opening is still too risky, both sides will know it. And in that case, Gov. Lamont needs to have a Plan B for economic relief. Except for Rhode Island, our neighboring states have much larger populations than Connecticut; their casinos and racetracks support a smaller percentage of their residents. Eastern Connecticut, with workforce unemployment up to 36.1 percent in its towns and cities, will have a lot further to go to recover. The whole state will also have to deal with the loss of slot machine revenues in the state budget.

Lamont has gotten both praise and criticism for his approach to gradually shutting down the state and planning to gradually reopen it. By and large he has succeeded in putting fences around the COVID-19 virus. But there cannot be an economic fence around the eastern part of the state. The governor needs to give priority to what local representatives and senators are telling him about the extreme effects of unemployment in the region's towns and cities.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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