As college students return to campuses, West Hartford is one of three municipalities to send a letter to the state requesting permission to further limit gathering sizes.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford’s mayor and town manager are asking the state for more flexibility in managing its response to COVID-19, and the town is one of three municipalities to request the ability to limit gathering sizes to 20 outdoors and 10 indoors, rather than the current limits of 100 and 25 respectively, in order to avoid possible super-spreader events that could be caused by large gatherings of college students who begin returning to campuses this month.
“For West Hartford, I view it as a contingency plan,” Town Manager Matt Hart told We-Ha.com.
Hart said the impetus for the request to limit gathering sizes for communities which are home to colleges or universities began with a conversation held with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) in late July. The terms of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders pertaining to COVID-19 do not currently permit municipalities to create their own policies that are more restrictive, including regarding the size of gatherings.
“For West Hartford, we see it as a precautionary measure for the school year,” Hart said. “We are looking for it to be enabling.”
The University of Saint Joseph is located in West Hartford, as are portions of the University of Hartford, and while neither has a large off-campus residential presence in town, “we want to be prepared,” Hart said.
He said he recommended that Cantor sign the letter, noting that looking at what has been happening nationally, the return of college students has led to spikes in COVID-19 cases in communities.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, along with the mayors of Mansfield and Windham, sent a letter addressed to James Rovella, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, during the first week of August. Mansfield is the location of the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs, and Windham is the home to Eastern Connecticut State University.
“As host communities for large numbers of students, we believe it is absolutely necessary to have further restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings to protect the health of both our permanent residents and our student residents,” the letter signed by the mayors states.
“Our returning students are coming from many different locations, from within the State of Connecticut, other states and even other countries. While the college and universities are including initial quarantine and testing measures for on-campus housing and classes, we have an obligation to take appropriate measures to protect all of our communities. We therefore request permission, pursuant to the Governor’s Executive Order 7-H, to limit off-campus and private indoor and outdoor gatherings to no more than ten (10) persons indoors and to no more than twenty (20) persons outdoors. We also request your assistance in enforcing these modified rules,” states the letter, as a tool to help control community spread.
“Our town administration – especially our health department – has been working closely with the administrations of USJ, University of Hartford, and ASD,” Mayor Shari Cantor said. The American School for the Deaf, located in West Hartford, is also a residential educational institution.
“While these schools have primarily on campus housing and they have messaged community responsible behavior with their students, we want to be prepared with the tools necessary if there is a situation where there is a gathering at off campus housing that put not only the students at risk but the greater community,” Cantor told We-Ha.com.
Hart said any further action in West Hartford would depend on the state’s next move, but he would not anticipate that the state would make a change to the executive order dictating a limit to the size of gatherings for just the three municipalities that made the request.
“If the state were to allow us to do something here, West Hartford would approach it with sound metrics,” he said.
Hart said he is not aware that the state has responded directly to CCM to indicate whether or not the request to limit gathering sizes will be granted.
“We’ve kept an open dialogue with city and town leaders regarding the governor’s executive orders and will continue to do so,” Max Reiss, spokesperson for Gov. Lamont, told We-Ha.com.
“The governor stated during his Thursday press conference that he has concerns about the potential for a patchwork of policies across the state which could lead to issues with enforcement. Additionally, we are providing extra support to some cities and towns seeking it, by providing Connecticut State Police in Mansfield from Thursday to Sunday to assist with enforcement of the rules. We have also made Commissioner James Rovella of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection available as a resource to assist municipalities.”
USJ students who are required to quarantine for 14 days have already arrived on campus in advance of the Aug. 31 start of classes.
Students at the University of Hartford began moving in on Aug. 22. Classes begin on Aug. 26.
Health Director Aimee Krauss has assigned a representative to work with both universities, Hart said.
West Hartford Police have “responded to a few complaints of large outdoor gatherings,” Hart said, but he doesn’t believe those gatherings were directly related to either university.
In addition to asking for permission to limit gathering size in West Hartford if necessary, the town has been engaged in discussions with the state regarding enforcement of wearing masks or face coverings.
“I wish the governor, in Executive Order 7BB, has a specific fine for violation of that order,” Hart said. Executive Order 7BB mandates the wearing of masks or other face coverings when indoors in a public space or when 6 feet of physical distance cannot be maintained.
The lack of a fine “makes enforcement rather challenging. We have, through CCM, requested a specific penalty, citation, or fine,” Hart said.
“In West Hartford we’ve been fortunate that the outdoor dining and pedestrian activity in the Center have not [led to] an increase in the number of cases or increased infection where we can point to that as the source,” Hart said.
Since early June, West Hartford has averaged roughly 10 new positive cases of COVID-19 per week, according to data provided by the state.
The lack of compliance with the mandate to wear masks or face coverings in the Center is the top complaint town officials have been receiving, Hart said.
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