Norwich, New London stick with Phase 3 reopening
Norwich and New London leaders said Wednesday they will stay with the state's Phase 3 reopening, which allows higher capacity in restaurant and indoor events, saying recent spikes in COVID-19 cases don't appear to be generated at restaurants, churches or retail stores.
Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order Tuesday allowing cities and towns with coronavirus spikes to roll back the state's Phase 3 reopening plan if they wished.
"We appreciate the value in Gov. Lamont’s intention to provide municipalities with additional tools to manage the troubling recent increase in infections," New London Mayor Michael Passero said in a news release Wednesday that followed a meeting with Ledge Light Health District officials. "However, the data reveal that there would be no significant value in moving back from Phase 3 to Phase 2 and thus I will not be ordering a change for our City at this time."
Norwich city officials heard the same message Wednesday during a meeting with Uncas Health District officials on whether to roll back openings. City Manager John Salomone said Norwich will stay with the Phase 3 opening but Uncas Health District and police will step up enforcement.
"The most important point is the health district’s contact tracing doesn’t show that the majority of infections are coming from restaurants or organized social events, like weddings," Salomone said. "They’re coming from more socialization, unorganized sporting events, small family gatherings. People were more isolated in spring and have kind of relaxed those precautions."
But Norwich Public Schools and Norwich Free Academy will remain in remote learning for another week, they announced Wednesday. NFA also announced that all clubs and athletic teams may only meet virtually during this time.
The schools switched to fully remote learning Oct. 2 in response to a state Department of Public Health COVID-19 alert issued for Norwich the day before. The state declared a COVID-19 alert for New London a week later. New London schools, however, remain in a hybrid learning model, except for Harbor Elementary School which was shifted to remote learning through the end of this week because of multiple cases reported earlier this month.
"Norwich remains one of the highest areas in our state," NFA Head of School Brian Kelly wrote in a letter to staff and families. "Our hope is that the additional week — combined with continued vigilance in our community — will provide the safest environment possible for our students to return to campus, which we know provides the best learning opportunity for them."
In addition to the remote learning announcement, Norwich Public Schools Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow announced a student at the John B. Stanton School tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct.10, the second case for a Stanton student in the past week and ninth overall case in staff or students since Oct. 7.
Stringfellow wrote to parents and staff that some high-needs students remained in in-person learning during the temporary shutdown and additional high-needs students will start in-person learning by invitation next week, even though the schools will remain in the remote learning model.
Norwich Regional Adult Education will return to in-person classes starting Monday, Stringfellow said.
Norwich Public Schools plan to return to hybrid learning Oct. 26, with parents having the option to request fully remote learning. Stringfellow told the Board of Education on Tuesday that more parents have been choosing the fully remote learning option, with percentages of students in all-remote learning ranging from 23.4% at the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet elementary school to 40.3% at Veterans’ Memorial School.
Percentages of remote learners jumped in all city schools since late August, except Wequonnoc School in Taftville, where fully remote learners dropped from 29.5% to 28.6%. At the Uncas school, the percentage of students shifting to fully remote learning jumped from 25.9% to 35.8%.
Stringfellow said the increased numbers of optional fully remote learners will ease school crowding both in the hybrid model or when schools plan to return to full in-person learning the week of Nov. 9.
“I truly hope we are able to fulfill this plan,” Stringfellow wrote to staff and parents. “We need your help to ensure that we are welcoming our students back in the safest manner possible. Please continue to call or email your principal if students or staff are symptomatic, have close contact with a COVID positive person or test positive. Please stay home if you are sick.”
Salomone said many Norwich restaurants are too small to open at 75% capacity and comply with spacing requirements that remain in place statewide. The city also has good communication with local clergy and knows they are being very careful with worship services, he said. He is keeping city offices closed except by appointment, with inspectors not doing in-person inspections.
Brian Stradczuk, owner of The Social Bar + Kitchen at 208 Bank St. in New London, said Passero's decision to not introduce tighter COVID-19 related restrictions makes little difference to him, and he suspects the same is true of other restaurant owners.
"People just want to feel safe," he said.
The rules allowing larger crowds won't change the size of his restaurant or social distancing measures that already restrict the number of patrons. He said with all of the pandemic news and rising COVID-19 numbers in the area, restaurant crowds remain sparse anyway.
"I'm fortunate with the room I have," Stradczuk said. "You see exactly what you're getting when you come in. The paramount thing right now is having the customer feel secure and know that you're thinking about their safety."
Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom is urging families to limit upcoming holiday celebrations to members of their own households to limit possible spread of the coronavirus. He also is asking local fire departments to cancel Halloween festivities or switch to drive-up events, with families dressing up and receiving treats in their cars.
Norwich police Chief Patrick Daley said two officers tested positive and have been on quarantine. A third officer, who had contact with one of the infected officers, was on quarantine but tested negative and returned to work Wednesday. The infected officers experienced mild symptoms. One is due back at work Thursday and the other later in the week, Daley said.
While the local rise in COVID-19 cases is not attributed to local schools, several districts throughout the region continue to alert staff and families of COVID-19 cases among school staff or students:
On Wednesday, the Regional Multicultural Magnet School learned of a second positive case in the school this week and shifted its students to remote learning for Thursday and Friday.
In a message to the school community, LEARN Executive Director Kate Ericson said there appeared to be no school-based close contacts in the second case and it is not connected to the first case, which was reported on Tuesday. The decision to close the school for two days, Ericson said, was “being made in the interest of everyone’s safety and to allow for a review of additional data.”
On Tuesday, Waterford Public Schools learned of two additional cases at Waterford High School, as well as another case at Clark Lane Middle School.
Superintendent Thomas Giard informed parents and guardians in an email Wednesday that all high school students would distance learn on Thursday and Friday. "There will be no extra-curricular activities and no interscholastic sports through the weekend,” he wrote, and teachers would communicate work expectations to students. The district is working with Ledge Light Health District on contact tracing. Those who tested positive were told to self-quarantine.
Clark Lane Middle School suspended in-person classes on Oct. 5 for two weeks, and had planned to reopen on Oct. 19. On Sunday, the district will reassess opening the schools for in-person learning again on Monday.
Groton schools learned Wednesday that a member of Groton Middle School and a member of Catherine Kolnaski School tested positive for COVID-19. The individuals had not been in school for over a week or in the buildings "at any time while infected," Superintendent Michael Graner wrote Wednesday in a notice to the community.
The affected individuals were instructed to isolate at home and follow public health guidelines, and Ledge Light Health District will contact only people who had recent close personal contact with those infected, he said.
The middle school had shifted to full remote learning through Oct. 16 after learning Oct. 4 that a member of its community tested positive.
New London County has seen 2,831 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 87 probable cases as of 4 p.m. Wednesday, increases of 10 and 3, respectively, since the state reported data Tuesday. One additional death confirmed associated with the disease reported in that 24-hour period brought the county's total to 98 so far; probable related deaths also increased by one to 31. One additional person in the county was hospitalized with the disease, for a total of 26.
In addition to increased testing sites offered in New London and Norwich, Stonington will offer two more opportunities for residents without symptoms to get free COVID-19 tests on Friday and Oct. 23 from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Stonington Human Services parking lot on Route 1 in Pawcatuck. Residents must bring a photo identification.
Stonington First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough and North Stonington First Selectman Mike Urgo will join Steve Mansfield, director of health for Ledge Light Health District, for a COVID-19 update and a question-and-answer session with the public from 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday. Residents can attend the virtual meeting by using the Zoom link us02web.zoom.us/j/89845678650 or calling in at 1 (301) 715 -8592 and using the webinar ID: 898 4567 8650.
The event also will be shown on the Town of North Stonington Facebook page.
Day Staff Writers Greg Smith, Joe Wojtas and Kimberly Drelich contributed to this report.
Free COVID-19 tests for greater Norwich area, no appointment necessary:
Thursday, 9 to 11 a.m., Norwich Emergency Management Department, 10 McKinley Ave.
Thursday, 9 to 11 a.m., Preston Senior Center, 42 Long Society Road
The Backus Hospital has moved its free COVID-19 test site to the parking lot at the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium, 14 Stott Ave., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week.
Ledge Light Health District publishes a list of test sites in southeastern Connecticut at bit.ly/nlccvtests.