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State rolling back capacity restrictions on restaurants, other businesses March 19

Citing the state’s success in containing COVID-19, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday he’ll roll back capacity restrictions on restaurants and other businesses in a couple of weeks while keeping in place an 11 p.m. curfew and doubling down on such safety protocols as mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent cleaning.

“This is not Texas, this is not Mississippi,” Lamont said during a virtual news briefing. “This is Connecticut. We are maintaining the masks. ... We have a much lower rate of infection than those maskless states, and we’re going to keep going with what works.”

As of March 19, restaurants will be allowed to operate at 100% capacity, though they still will have to limit seating to eight people per table and observe the curfew. Bars that only serve alcohol will be required to stay closed “a little bit longer,” the governor said.

Capacity limits also will be eliminated for retail businesses, libraries, personal services, indoor recreation (except theaters, which will continue to be restricted to 50% capacity); gyms and fitness centers; museums, aquariums and zoos; offices; and houses of worship. Gatherings at private residences will be limited to 25 people indoors and 100 outdoors. Gatherings at commercial venues will be limited to 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors.

All sports teams will be allowed to practice and compete, and all sports tournaments will be allowed, subject to state Department of Public Health guidance.

Connecticut’s travel advisory, which requires travelers to quarantine upon entering the state from states and countries with high infection rates, will be modified to merely recommend quarantining.

Beginning March 29, capacity limits on early childhood classes will increase from 16 to 20, and as of April 2, outdoor amusement parks can open; outdoor event venues can increase to 50% capacity, capped at 10,000 people; and indoor stadiums can open at 10% capacity.

Summer camps and summer festivals are advised to begin planning for the upcoming season.

Lamont, whose rollback plan runs counter to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, said he sought input from members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, hospitals, health care experts and others, and was confident the state was ready for the easing of restrictions. He said that with more COVID-19 vaccine on the way, warmer weather on tap “and more and more of our peers headed in the same direction,” it was time.

He acknowledged that those he consulted were not unanimous in their support for the rollback but that opposition from the medical community was “not overwhelming.”

“I think Connecticut has earned it,” he said. “It’s been tough for a lot of our businesses that have really taken a hit. It feels good that we’re about to do this.”

David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said it’s not known how many of Connecticut’s restaurants have been forced out of business by the pandemic but close to 10% of them have stopped ordering food.

Connecticut storeowners reacted favorably to word of the rollback.

“We welcome the Governor’s announcement, and appreciate his ongoing support of retailers in Connecticut,” Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, said in a statement. “The state’s revised plan will permit retail business in communities across our state to return closer to normal operations. As we look ahead to welcoming back more of our customers this month, it is important to underscore that Connecticut retailers remain committed to continuing to adhere to state guidelines and protocols, to protect the health and safety of customers and employees.”

Lamont reported that 74% of Connecticut residents 75 and older have now received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Among those between 65 and 74, it’s 59% and among those 55 to 64 — the group that just became eligible Monday — it’s 17%.

He said more than 100 clinics across the state were vaccinating teachers and school staff, another newly eligible group.

New cases of COVID-19 numbered 878 out of 47,132 test results, a daily positivity rate of 1.86%, the state's lowest in months. COVID-19 hospitalizations had dropped by 18 since the previous day to 433, while 15 additional deaths associated with the disease increased the toll since the pandemic began to 7,693.

Three additional cases of the so-called U.K. variant of COVID-19 were reported in the state, bringing the total number of confirmed cases of the variant in Connecticut to 66.

New London County hospitalizations were down to 25, with Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London reporting it had eight COVID-19 patients and Westerly Hospital, four.

Lamont said hospital capacity would remain the most important metric in deciding whether the upcoming rollback should be reversed at any point. Since first allowing businesses to partially reopen May 20, the state has never gone backward, he noted.

The governor also announced he had signed an executive order advancing the opening day of trout fishing season from April 10 to Thursday.

“Opening the fishing season early helps to reduce opening day crowds and limit the potential for spread of COVID-19,” he said in a statement. “Anglers are encouraged to continue to practice social distancing, and we encourage fishing to be enjoyed only with members of your immediate household and not as a group activity.”

New fishing and hunting license sales in Connecticut have grown by 17% in the last year.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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