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Pawcatuck barber shop ordered to close, prepares to file lawsuit

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Stonington — A Pawcatuck barber was ordered to close her shop by the Ledge Light Health District on Thursday, one day after the district and town officials allowed her to reopen in defiance of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order prohibiting barber shops and salons from opening until early next month.

By the end of the day, Catherine "Cat" Thibodeau was prepared to sue Lamont, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, the health district and its director, Stephen Mansfield.

The application for a temporary injunction, prepared to be filed in New London Superior Court on Thibodeau's behalf by New London attorney Robert F. Kappes and attorney Frank J. Riccio III of Bridgeport, alleges Thibodeau and her business, Modern Barber and Shave, have been "permanently and financially irreparably harmed by expending sums of money to be in compliance with the Defendants' health regulations and yet being precluded from opening on May 20, 2020 and thereafter."

The lawsuit alleges Lamont "exceeded" his powers by decreeing that salons and barber shops could not reopen as scheduled Wednesday, and that the public health order issued by the health district was contrary to state law, as the barber shop had been found to be in compliance with all of the safety requirements set forth by the state for reopening.

It is unclear when the case will be heard in court. It comes the same day that a U.S. district judge rejected a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Lamont’s emergency pandemic order closing bars and restaurants. 

On Saturday, Thibodeau is asking supporters to rally peacefully at the barber shop at 110 West Broad St. in Pawcatuck from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to show support. She is advertising the "I stand with Modern Barber Cat Thibodeau" event on Facebook and has established a GoFundMe page to help pay for legal expenses.

The Ledge Light Health District announced Wednesday afternoon that it had consulted with state health officials and its attorney and determined that the district was responsible for enforcing the governor’s order, after officials spent most of that day grappling with conflicting state mandates that allowed Thibodeau to return to work.

Early Thursday morning, she was issued "an order of abatement or to cease and desist due to nuisance" by the district outside the Stonington Police Department. She did not open the shop for a second day.

Mansfield, Ledge Light director of health, said Thursday evening that he hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment. He said the health district routinely issues public health orders and, in his 22-year tenure at the agency, he has never had one overturned by an appeals panel at the state Department of Public Health.

He had informed Thibodeau late Wednesday afternoon that the clarification from the state meant she could not continue to operate. He said if she did continue to operate, it would be a matter for Stonington police to enforce.

The barber said she was thinking about reopening, even if it meant getting arrested. “It’s something that I feel strongly about and potentially that’s what’s going to occur and we’ll see what happens,” Thibodeau said early Thursday.

State Sen. Heather Somers, who accompanied Thibodeau to the police station on Thursday, said “nobody is interested in having anything have to happen.”

Somers said she showed up to support her constituent but not to encourage her decision either way. She attended the meeting between Thibodeau and Stonington police Cap. Todd Olson, she said, to help Thibodeau understand “what the process looks like so she can understand how to proceed or not proceed.”

The senator noted that on Wednesday, the language surrounding the governor’s order was a little more passive, but on Thursday, the order was clear — if Thibodeau opened her shop, she would be in defiance of the order and it would be up to local police to enforce.

“This whole situation has really put all departments, whether it's the local health district or the local police department, in really untenable positions. Nobody wants to have to enforce something against a great community member but these orders are coming from the governor’s office and that has to be clear, this is the governor’s directive,” she said. “The police department has to follow the law.”

At the police station Thursday, Thibodeau said that keeping her doors closed any longer was putting her business in jeopardy.

“It’s really the loss of my entire livelihood. I’ve put everything into my business; I don’t have another source of income, I don’t have other skills. I’m a barber, my grandfather was a barber, his grandfather was a barber and I just want to go back to cutting hair,” she said.

Thibodeau had said she needed to reopen to keep her 6-year-old business afloat and had spent $5,000 on gloves, masks, sanitizer and cleaning materials, as well as software for an online booking system. She thinks she can open up safely and is booked solid for weeks, with at least 75 clients lined up. People have been calling her from all over the state to voice their support, she said, and offering to drive over an hour to get a haircut at her shop.

The barber said she doesn’t think the governor is “in touch with the regular people.”

“It’s fine for him to say ‘Wait a few more weeks, see what happens,’” she said. “But for the regular people who are on the ground like me, we have to get back to work, it’s do or die.”

A stream of potential customers arrived at the shop, located at the corner of West Broad Street (Route 1) and Chase Street in downtown Pawcatuck, throughout the morning Thursday, knocking on the door with no answer as Thibodeau’s business remained closed.

“Enough is enough, I need a haircut,” said Steve Smith of Westerly, who came to the shop hoping for a drop-in haircut Thursday. “Enough of this appointment stuff and the ‘You can go here but not over there, you can go to this store but you can’t get a haircut.’ It’s stupid.”

Smith said he’d been to Thibodeau’s shop before and wanted to come show his support for her decision to reopen Wednesday. He said he thinks the governor’s order to keep barber shops and salons closed was a mistake. “I mean, people have got to make a living,” he said. “We can get paranoid and be so afraid that we won’t get in our cars or go to the store, we’ll all just sit home and die if we follow the governor’s criteria.”

“He’s foolish, just foolish,” Smith said of Lamont.

On Wednesday, Thibodeau gave several haircuts after getting the green light to open, keeping her door locked to make sure there was only one customer inside at a time. A sign on her door asked customers to call for an appointment.

Somers said the barber shop “looks like a lab,” stocked with supplies to sanitize between clients.

On Thursday, Somers said she thinks people defying or protesting the governor’s order to keep salons and barber shops closed are confused about why getting a haircut poses such a risk in the governor’s eyes.

“How is that any less safe than going to a big box store?” she said. “I think that’s what people are struggling with, but the governor’s order is the governor’s order, we have to follow the law. It's been clarified, it’s clear, so we have to see how things go.”

In its original letter directing barbers, hairdressers, cosmetologists, nail technicians, estheticians, eyelash technicians and massage therapists to close, the state Department of Public Health told them, “The nature of your profession puts you in direct contact with your clients and customers. Therefore, the risk of transmission if you or a client is infected is higher than professions that do not require direct contact.”

Barber shops originally had been on the list of businesses that could reopen Wednesday with a long list of requirements to protect employees and customers. But on Monday, Lamont changed his mind, saying barber shops and hair salons had to stay closed until early June, so the state would be in line with the schedule being used in Rhode Island.

Lamont said this week that he changed the date for salons and barber shops to reopen after hearing from several salon owners who were concerned that it was too soon, as well as those who were having trouble finding protective equipment and other supplies and arranging child care.

Thibodeau's actions came as a group called "Connecticut Stylists for a Late Opening," claiming it represents more than 3,500 stylists, issued a statement thanking Lamont for his decision to "realign the reopening of Connecticut with Rhode Island, meanwhile allowing Connecticut stylists more time for preparation, and to seek solutions to problems left unresolved."

“I understand if you’re somebody who works in a salon and you’re not comfortable, you don’t have to come back, but many of these folks that want to open are the owners, they’re not able to collect unemployment and if they wanna go back to work, it’s really hard,” Somers said.

Thibodeau echoed her sentiment.

“I think that the governor overturning his initial decision to open us on May 20 is unfair and not a decision based on the community's health,” she said. “He cited several salon owners who are not ready to open and it's their right not to open just as much as it is my right to open.”

t.hartz@theday.com 

k.florin@theday.com

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