HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A few flagrant violations of Connecticut's coronavirus rules and concerns about the holiday shopping season have prompted Gov. Ned Lamont to impose a steep new $10,000 fine on businesses that don't follow the mandates at a time of surging COVID-19 cases.
The new fine will replace the current $500 maximum penalty beginning at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, the Democratic governor first announced Tuesday evening.
“We’re doing that not to just to keep your patrons safe, those around you, to make sure we can do everything we can to keep your stores open during this amazing shopping holiday season and do it safely,” Lamont said at a news conference Wednesday.
The governor also announced Wednesday that 1,872 more people tested positive for the virus in the state compared with Tuesday's data, and another 45 people died.
The number of people hospitalized increased by 77, which Lamont called the largest single-day increase since the first virus surge in the spring. A total of 968 people were in the hospital with COVID-19, about half as many as there were during the peak in late April.
A small number of restaurants have been cited for essentially operating as bars, which have been ordered closed during the pandemic. Restaurants are limited to 50% capacity, a maximum of eight people per table, must stop taking food orders for indoor dining at 9:30 p.m. and close by 10 p.m. Mask wearing and social distancing also are required.
Lamont said there were also concerns about shoppers flooding stores and employee safety on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. He said any shopping lines will be subject to social distancing rules that stores must enforce, and store capacity is limited to 50%.
The governor urged shoppers instead to consider ordering online from local merchants, or doing curbside pickup at major retailers after ordering by phone or online.
“When it comes to, quote, Black Friday ... no need to crash the line at 6 a.m. in the morning,” Lamont said.
Local health directors or other municipal officials can issue the fines with the support of police.
The Connecticut Restaurant Association, an industry group, said in a statement that while it supported the governor in punishing violators, the state also should offer grants to help the vast majority of restaurants that are following the rules but facing large revenue declines that have forced many to close during the pandemic. The group said other states are offering more aid to businesses.
Lamont said tens of millions of dollars in federal aid already has gone to Connecticut businesses, and any pandemic-related expenses taken from the state's $3 billion rainy day fund would go toward vaccinations, testing and other public health costs.
The state, however, is finalizing a $50 million grant program for small businesses that will award up to $5,000 to eligible businesses, said David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
Lehman also said the state has been getting 300 to 500 complaints a week about coronavirus protocols not being followed at businesses, with the most common grievance being a lack of enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing.
In other virus-related news in Connecticut:
— The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate of coronavirus testing in Connecticut is about 5.5%, up from 3.9% as of Nov. 10. The daily rate on Wednesday was 5.99 percent. Since the pandemic began, about 109,000 people in the state have tested positive and more than 4,900 have died.
— Lamont said nearly 750,000 people have signed up for the COVID Alert CT app, which notifies people if they have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Lamont said the sign-up rate is the best per-capita among states with similar contact-tracing apps.
— The Step Up Connecticut website has received about 6,000 visitors and hundreds of people are signing up to volunteer to help at testing sites, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other locations facing staffing shortages, Lamont said.
— The governor wished everyone a happy and safe Thanksgiving and said he will be spending the holiday with his immediate family at his home in Greenwich.