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May 19, 2020

What if CT businesses reopen prematurely?

May 20 marks a milestone on Connecticut’s commercial landscape. That’s the day some businesses begin to awaken from their long and painful coronavirus-induced shutdown that began the second week of March. Offices and retailers and restaurants (for outdoor dining only) may open to the public Wednesday, but hair salons and barbershops had the plug pulled on them at the last minute Monday when Gov. Ned Lamont changed his mind and postponed their reopening another 12 days, until June 1.

Even as the COVID threat has abated in much of the state, the shutdown continues for at least another month for most other Connecticut businesses. That is, if business owners elect to comply with the moving target of executive orders from Hartford. Around the country an increasing number of business owners have rebelled against what many regard as capricious closing orders and arbitrary enforcement.

Beyond Connecticut a growing number of small-business owners at the end of their financial ropes have reopened in violation of local and state executive orders — and in many cases provoked heavy-handed retaliation from public officials. In Bellmawr, N.J. owners of the Atilis Gym drew the ire of Gov. Phil Murphy by reopening on Monday in defiance of the Garden State shutdown. In Dallas, salon owner Shelley Luther was jailed for defying a judge’s order — and became a national cause célèbre (she was freed after a day behind bars).

You’re unlikely to see tear gas and SWAT teams in the City of Elms. In contrast to the draconian enforcement tactics employed by some governors and mayors elsewhere, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker promises a kinder, gentler approach to enforcing continued business closings in his city.

“Typically the way the enforcement piece works is a collaboration between the health department and the police department,” explained city Public Health Director Maritza Bond. 

The first step in dealing with a business that reopens in violation of the governor’s executive orders would be a visit from a police officer to remind the owner that he or she is in violation of the guidelines and should close doors to the public.

Statewide, Lamont’s executive order has made municipal health directors the first line of defense against non-compliant businesses, giving them the power to order scofflaw merchants, restaurateurs and service businesses closed.

In the Elm City you’re unlikely to see German shepherds or fire hoses deployed to disperse consumers engaged in illegal commerce. So far, at least, most city businesses have played by the rules — and gentle persuasion on the part of city officials has carried the day.

“To date we’ve been very reluctant to do anything other than talk with [business] people about how they should be following the mask and social-distancing guidelines and not gathering in large groups,” said Elicker. “If this becomes more of a problem — and we anticipate there will be some growing pains as far as opening up goes — we’ll revisit that [approach].

“We would very much prefer, and think [the reopening] is going to be more successful, if businesses do their best to cooperate,” the mayor added, “and if we can interact with businesses in a positive way to make sure that we’re keeping residents safe, rather than some police enforcement that we prefer to avoid.”

As of Monday afternoon the city had received some 100 applications from restaurants seeking to offer outdoor dining to patrons beginning on Wednesday. Before they can open their doors restaurants must pass an inspection by the city’s health department. Bond said those inspections would begin on Wednesday, so some eateries will likely have to wait to reopen.

Elicker has recommended to business owners who plan to reopen this week to have their employees tested for COVID. The city has partnered with Murphy Medical Associates of Greenwich to offer free walk-up testing to anyone at an outdoor site set up at Day Street Park (at the intersection of Chapel Street) that opened April 28. Those without health insurance may be tested at no cost. The Day Street test site is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Call the health department at 203-946-4949 for an appointment.

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