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UPDATED: State tells local health officials to shut down Pawcatuck barber shop

Stonington — Town and health officials, confused over how to interpret conflicting state mandates, had allowed a Pawcatuck barber shop to reopen Wednesday morning in defiance of an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont that prohibits barber shops and salons from opening until early next month.

The reopening of Modern Barber and Shave on West Broad Street appears to be short-lived, as late Wednesday afternoon, Ledge Light Health District announced that it had consulted with state health officials and its attorney and determined the health district is responsible for enforcing Lamont's executive orders and will issue an order of closure to any business in violation.

Earlier in the day, there had been confusion among town, police and local health officials about the intent of the orders and who was responsible for enforcement due to unclear and conflicting language issued by the state.

Ledge Light Director of Health Steve Mansfield said his agency informed shop owner Cat Thibodeau late Wednesday afternoon that the clarification from the state means she cannot continue to operate. He said Stonington police will deliver a formal order of closure to her at 8 a.m. Thursday. If she continues to operate, it will be a matter for police to enforce. 

"Our hands are tied. We recognize it puts her and her staff in a difficult situation. It's unfortunate," he said.

Thibodeau had said she needed to reopen to keep her 6-year-old business afloat and had spent thousands of dollars on gloves, masks, sanitizer and cleaning materials as well as software for an online booking system. She said she plans to open Thursday morning and see what happens. 

First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough and Katie Baldwin, Ledge Light's supervisor of regulated facilities and housing, arrived at Modern Barber and Shave just before 9 a.m. to meet with Thibodeau before she opened her doors.

"This is a courtesy inspection, not an enforcement inspection, so you can safely reopen," Baldwin told Thibodeau as she went through a checklist of safety requirements and made recommendations such as posting her cleaning protocols.

When Thibodeau said she did not have a face shield, Chesebrough said she would go to Town Hall and bring one back for her to use.

"I'd say you're good to go. Nothing stands out," Baldwin told Thibodeau a few minutes before her first customer at 9:30 a.m.

Thibodeau said she was waiting to see what the police and health department would do if she tried to reopen but added she was not really worried. "I'm excited to get going," she said.

Also at the shop Wednesday morning was state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who thanked Baldwin for being the "voice of reason and expertise at this point," adding she wanted to "apologize for the mixed messages" coming from Lamont's office. Somers said it was amazing to see the collaboration among local businesses, health officials and the first selectwoman. "This is a perfect example of how we can work together to keep people safe while preserving the future for business owners," she said.

John Alfiero of Westerly was Thibodeau's first customer Wednesday. "I support her. I really do. She's put her whole life into this business and she could go bankrupt if she can't reopen," he said while wearing a mask and waiting outside on the shop's porch.

Alfiero, who said he works in the laboratory at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and is familiar with personal protection protocols, said he felt comfortable in what he called the controlled environment of Thibodeau's barber shop. He contrasted it with a grocery store, where he said people are touching many of the items he may then pick up.

Thibodeau said she plans to have just herself in the shop and will only allow one customer in at time. She said this will allow her to have about 15 customers a day and start paying some of her bills. She said both she and customers would wear masks and payment is done with an online touchless system.

Confusion over orders

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.

He also had been urged by some salon owners across the state to delay the reopening date because they were not ready to reopen or their employees had concerns about returning to work, including how to provide child care and home schooling. Thibodeau had complained that the governor had not even given shop owners 48 hours' notice after she had worked for weeks to get ready to reopen and was booked solid into June.

On Tuesday Lamont issued a new executive order that allows state and local police to enforce violations of orders in a civil preparedness or public health emergency and gives local health directors the power to close businesses that are violating the regulations. Stonington police and Ledge Light, however, did not choose to use those powers, in part because of the confusing language and questions they had about whether the actions were mandatory. In addition, the state Department of Public Health had issued guidelines Tuesday that said police can close businesses, which appeared to conflict with the wording of the governor's order. 

Before Lamont reversed his decision on Monday, Mansfield said there had been no communication between the governor’s office and local health officials about being assigned as the enforcement arm for his executive order. He added health districts have had “no seat at the table” when it comes to Lamont’s reopening deliberations.

Mansfield said Ledge Light asked its attorney if the district had authority to enforce the rule and then submitted a list of questions to Lamont’s office. He pointed out that Tuesday's order granting police and health districts enforcement capability did not say it was mandatory, which is one of the questions the health district had.

Stonington police Capt. Todd Olson had pointed out earlier Wednesday that Lamont's executive order had left it up to health districts to take action against businesses, while police will enforce other violations, such as lack of social distancing.

Mansfield, who said his organization’s primary responsibility is to protect the public's heath, had said being the enforcement agent for the reopening would place a huge burden on his staff and take away from their primary role of helping reduce the spread and morbidity of COVID-19.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Chesebrough issued a statement saying Ledge Light "has been going above and beyond for the communities they serve during this challenging time."

"Many of us share in the frustration of business owners and non-profit organizations looking to get back on their feet; however, with the clarification received today from the state, Ledge Light Health District is now doing what is being required of them," she said. "We ask residents, businesses and organizations for their continued patience and civility during this challenging time." 

j.wojtas@theday.com

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