State and city leaders blame social gatherings, not businesses or schools, for coronavirus uptick in New London

Connecticut and local officials said Monday that the recent uptick in coronavirus cases in New London can be traced back to a series of social gatherings and other small social interactions — not to local school or business reopenings, or to the nearby casinos.

“We’re being told by the contact tracers that it’s not coming from any institutional or business setting, it’s coming predominantly from social spread … where people are letting their guard down,” said New London Mayor Michael Passero.

He pointed to situations — such as small family gatherings that are well within the state limits on gathering size — where people may feel relaxed enough that they remove their masks or sit nearby one another. But COVID-19 can still spread, even among a small group of people and even from people who aren’t displaying any symptoms.

“The institutional environments — nursing homes, schools, even the casino — they have these strict protocols in place, people are less likely to let their guard down,” Passero said. “So where it’s spreading now is where people are more likely to be relaxed and let their guard down.”

The state issued a COVID-19 alert for New London on Thursday, after a steep increase in cases in the city. New London and the surrounding areas saw relatively few cases in the spring, and by Sept. 25 New London had recorded a total of 229 confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began in March. But from Sept. 25 to Oct. 9, New London’s cases jumped up to 368 — an increase of 139 in just two weeks.

The reported cause of the New London uptick align with comments made by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, during a visit to UConn’s Hartford campus last week.

“This is really a message to everyone in Connecticut: the kind of spread that we’re seeing now is very different from the spread we experienced in March and April,” Birx said.

At the Monday afternoon press briefing in New London, Gov. Ned Lamont pointed back to Birx’s comments.

It’s “informal social events, that’s where we’ve got to the track and trace, that’s where we need families to be particularly careful,” Lamont said.

Dr. Deidre Gifford, the interim commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, listed off a couple specific spreading events that have been identified by contact tracers — including carpooling, lunch breaks and family gatherings that brought together multiple households. (It’s unclear if she was referencing spreading events across the entire state or specifically in New London.)

The state’s response to the spread is “nothing new,” Gifford said. “But it’s just … the vigilance. We keep reminding ourselves: mask on, over the nose and mouth, if you’re with anybody that’s not part of your household.”

Also at Monday’s briefing, Lamont said that he expects to release an executive order “within the next couple of days” that will allow municipalities with rising cases of COVID-19, including New London, to remain in the second phase of reopening if they choose. The state moved to the third phase of reopening on Thursday, which has meant an increase in the number of people allowed inside restaurants and at private gatherings, among other loosened restrictions.

Under current state law, all municipalities are required to abide by the state’s reopening guidance — which means that municipalities such as New London have been required to move to phase three until the governor releases an executive order allowing them to move back to phase two.

But although the state has left a handful of at-risk municipalities in limbo, the timing lag may not make a difference in New London.

Passero, the New London mayor, said he isn’t planning to move the city back to phase two, even once the state allows it.

“The problem with New London is, it’s so small. For me to do something independent in New London, I’m not getting the feedback from my health department that it would have any real relevance,” Passero said. “It’s too small a geographical area for me to really be able to effectively exercise any discretion.”

Passero said he and the local health department are still looking into the possibility of reinstating some restrictions. But as of Monday, Passero said he felt it would be a pointless penalty on New London businesses — without any real public health benefits — unless it was done in coordination with a number of neighboring towns.

Emily Brindley can be reached at ebrindley@courant.com.

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