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Lamont lifts single-use plastic bag tax during coronavirus pandemic

Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday that he is temporarily lifting the 10-cent tax on single-use plastic bags, amid concerns that reusable ones have become a sanitary concern during the coronavirus outbreak.

The order enables stores to once again provide the single-use bags for free.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, earlier in the day had called on Lamont to "hit the pause button" on the single-use plastic bag tax enacted last year, saying the reusable bags that shoppers have been dutifully hauling back and forth to grocery stores pose a public health risk to shoppers and store employees.

"This is one small measure of safety we can take to ensure we can protect our citizens and our workers from the virus," Somers said.

She said the contagious airborne virus that causes the COVID-19 disease can live up to three days on plastic, and a local grocery manager told her that store employees don't want to handle the reusable bags. A Harvard epidemiologist who spoke to The Boston Globe said it's unclear whether the reusable bags could spread the virus but replacing them couldn't hurt the effort to stop community transmission.  

Somers and state Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, who are ranking members of the General Assembly's Public Health Committee, wrote to Lamont and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes on Wednesday to ask that the state's stance on plastic bags be reversed during the pandemic.

"Reusable bags that shoppers bring into stores can carry the virus and help spread it to unknowing shoppers and employees who encounter them," the letter says. "While grocery stores and other retail facilities remain open, we believe it is pertinent to not expose their employees and their work areas any more than absolutely necessary."

State Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, Republican minority leader, also had called on Lamont to lift the bag tax.

"By having resusable bags come in and out of supermarkets we are putting our essential grocery workers at peril," Klarides wrote, in part, in a Facebook post.

Some stores, such as Walmart, still carry plastic bags and have been charging the 10-cent tax. Others, such as Big Y and Stop & Shop, have removed the bags and have been offering paper bags for a dime.

Somers said surrounding states, including Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, have banned reusable bags for now.

"Plastic bags are not good for the environment, I know that," she said by phone Thursday morning. "However, we have a pandemic and we need to be smart."

She also said she understands there are other pressing needs due to the virus, including obtaining protective equipment for health care workers, but said state officials should be able to work on the plastic bag issue at the same time.

Though shoppers have been encouraged to sanitize their reusable bags, it may be difficult for some, including members of the vulnerable elderly population, to do so, Somers said. Many people place the bags on the ground, and on their kitchen counters, then return them to their cars and shopping carts without knowing they may pose a health risk, she said.

"They're going everywhere, then you touch them, and then you're going to ask a grocery store worker to stuff that bag, and God knows where it's been," she said.

Somers said it should be easy for stores to restock the single-use bags and noted that plant-based single-use bags, which are made from biodegradable materials and can be composted, are becoming common in other states and Europe.

The state fee on plastic bags has generated less revenue than anticipated.

"This year they were looking at maybe generating $750,000, if that," Somers said. "Let's not charge the 10 cents during this time. It just makes sense to lift the ban until we get through this virus, until we flatten the curve."

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies that reusable bags have become a sanitary concern during the coronavirus outbreak.

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