Despite Governor Lamont’s order for flags to be raised again to full mast on Tuesday, people are still dying from COVID-19 in Connecticut, daily. Unlike the states Lamont seems to be crowdsourcing his decisions from – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey – Connecticut’s new cases over the past 14 days have remained “mostly the same” according to the New York Times, more similar to states like Louisiana than to our neighbors.
These facts may have gotten lost in the past few days, but they bear repeating, especially as who is dying, and who is getting sick, have re-exposed existing, ugly inequities in our state, and underscore problems with the state’s COVID-19 response so far.
So, let’s get something out of the way: “re”open Connecticut is an inaccurate and disrespectful term, but it tells you everything you need to know about the assumptions that Connecticut’s government is making about people’s circumstances, and about who this “re”opening is really for. There is no “re”opening for essential workers who the government has left open to COVID-19 exposure risk since day one. There is no “back” to work for people whose circumstances have forced them to keep working in harm’s way, for vulnerable people who have been left out of the government’s response, for people whose jobs are gone, for people whose care for their children or other families members isn’t recognized as work, or for people who have died or will die from COVID-19.
“Re”open assumes everyone in our state has been closed, safe and sheltered at home, when in truth the government has left many people open to COVID-19 from the beginning. What happened on May 20 wasn’t the “start” of a “re”opening for Connecticut: it was a continuation of Connecticut’s now-steady habit of leaving vulnerable people behind in its response to COVID-19.
On May 20, under Lamont’s direction, Connecticut prepared to continue jeopardizing vulnerable people’s lives based on the decisions of a group of people not beholden to the people or to democratic oversight, but to a Governor who has undermined freedom of information laws, ignored calls for transparency about his decisions, and continually made choices that left marginalized people in harm’s way.
To understand what Lamont’s choice to add more businesses to the lists of those that have been open could mean for Connecticut, it’s useful to look at what his actions so far have meant for vulnerable people – the people who the government, by and large, has left open and exposed to COVID-19 from the start.
Even based on the state’s own incomplete data, the virus is hitting Black and Latinx people in our Connecticut hardest. Based on the state’s incomplete data (35% of cases still have “unknown race” listed as of May 14), Black and Latino people in Connecticut are two times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white people in our state, and Black people are more likely to die.
These disparities are not based in biological reasons, but in racism entrenched in the systems that determine health, including medical care. There is solid evidence that these disparities may also reflect which workers the government has chosen to put in harm’s way as “essential workers.” In Connecticut and elsewhere, the low-wage, often no-benefit jobs deemed essential, like grocery store clerk, warehouse work, and home health aid, are the jobs that Black and brown people disproportionately fill. Data has shown that Black and Latinx workers overall are less likely to be able to work from home.
While there is not COVID-19 case data around economic status, it’s also clear that “open” so far has depended on the lives and health of low-income people. Wealthy people have been more able to limit their travel, while low-income workers weren’t able to do the same. Data from metropolitan areas with large income disparities, including the Bridgeport-Stamford area, showed that during the first weeks of the pandemic, people from both high and low-income brackets dramatically limited their travel, but low-income workers’ travel increased again at the beginning of the new workweek, and they were not able to reduce travel as much as their high-income neighbors. A new report released yesterday also suggests that new cases are still rising more in Connecticut’s largest cities than in the rest of the state.
Despite lip service about the importance of “essential workers,” Lamont hasn’t taken the necessary steps to protect them, nor has he made it possible for even more people to safely go to in-person work now. Lamont did not issue an executive order requiring hazard pay for essential workers, a decision that could widen the already immense inequities in our state. Despite lip service to the economy, he hasn’t filled in gaps left by the federal government by providing stimulus relief to a part of the state’s economic engine: people who are undocumented. He did not ensure that every single frontline worker had sufficient PPE (personal protective equipment), and they still don’t. While the federal government provided some paid leave protections, Lamont did not issue an executive order to fill the gaps to ensure paid sick leave for all workers, of all employer sizes, to be able to protect public health by staying home to take care of themselves or others if sick from COVID-19.
Lamont also has not done enough to make working possible for vulnerable people during this current phase. His executive order on eviction moratoriums only runs until July; foreclosures could begin again this summer. His Office of Early Childhood created a program for childcare for frontline people like grocery and healthcare workers, but the program is only accepting applications until June 15 and only received $10 million in funding. Right now, that program also doesn’t seem to apply to workers who could be forced to go back in on May 20, like restaurant service employees, even though schools and camps remain closed.
A recent executive order from Lamont also hints at using police to enforce protective measures in businesses. This could mean more of the same from police who, since the pandemic began, have continued putting people in close proximity by arresting them even for non-serious charges, even killing one young man.
The list goes on. Lamont has not acted to safely and rapidly release people who are incarcerated, which experts warn may undermine efforts to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases even outside of prisons and jails. There are still more questions than answers about how or if the state will ensure food security, educational equity, disability rights, or medical care as more people face potential exposure this summer, voting rights during the general election in November, and more.
Lamont has failed to act despite the fact that people of color, immigrants, low-income workers, disability communities, frontline workers, women’s rights and gender justice advocates, families of incarcerated people, housing advocates, public health and medical experts, and many, many other constituents have tried to warn him about the dire need for him to start prioritizing equity.
When the government acts in secret, without transparency and oversight, those hurt first and worst are often the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. The same is true here. All of these decisions have happened without meaningful transparency or oversight.
Despite Lamont’s encouragement for the rest of us to be open, his administration isn’t. Lamont issued an executive order that stays Freedom of Information (FOI) Commission hearings and suspends FOI deadlines, which means Connecticut is essentially without a functional FOI Act right now. This means the public, press, and even other government officials are without a critical oversight and accountability tool. Meanwhile, the legislature has not brought itself back into session, and courts are running at limited capacity, meaning the powers of government have essentially been consolidated into the executive branch.
Daily press briefings and interviews are nice, but they are not a stand-in for real transparency, and, in addition to taking away FOI tools to hold him up to sunlight, Lamont’s government has not been forthcoming with the public about critical information. For example, Lamont’s “Reopen Connecticut Advisory Board” has come under heavy criticism. Lamont chose to run the board, tasked with creating his plan to “re”open the state, through a nonprofit, AdvanceCT, instead of creating a government task force. He and his staff have made clear they think the group’s activities shouldn’t be beholden to Freedom of Information laws – they absolutely should be, and are.
The advisory board, from day one, also appeared set up to prioritize corporations over people and equity. The advisory board’s membership lists posted in two Lamont press releases made clear that Lamont was stacking the deck toward businesses, not the people those businesses depend on. According to a press release issued by Governor Lamont, there were 15 people on the group’s “business committee,” towering over the “community committee” (6 people), “education committee” (9 people), and Governor Lamont’s representatives (10).
Lamont has also been largely inaccessible to the public – and even to legislators – during this time when he is making decisions about people’s daily lives. Go onto the State of Connecticut’s website today, and you’ll find a thorough form for businesses to provide feedback to the Governor, enticing businesses to “let your voice be heard.” There isn’t a similar option for vulnerable people in the state. Indeed, at one point during the pandemic, Lamont told families desperate to protect their incarcerated loved ones to “call him,” despite having turned off his phone lines to redirect to 211. When asked about legislators upset about his lack of transparency about critical decisions affecting their communities, he responded that they should just watch his daily press briefings. Yet their fears around inadequate testing data and lack of supports to ease restrictions were legitimate, as were their questions about what plans, if any, the state has for if infection rates begin rising again, and how and if the state gave any consideration to the fact that COVID-19 is hitting Black and Latinx communities hardest when it planned its steps for May 20.
Without the FOI Act in working order, and as a result of Lamont’s choice to obscure whether a nonprofit or the government was in charge, there is no public insight into how Lamont or his “re”open board have been making life-or-death decisions about Connecticut’s future. Now, with that advisory board disbanded, Lamont says he will be relying on the Boston Consulting Group for advice, and that all decisions will be made by him (without transparency about how the decision was made, Lamont allocated $2 million for the Boston Consulting Group, an out-of-state firm, to tell him what the next steps should be for the state – for perspective, that’s a little under half the money it would take, according to advocates, to provide safe shelter for three months for vulnerable people).
Lamont’s COVID-19 response has also happened without the democratic check and balance of the legislature. If the rest of the state is “opening,” then the General Assembly should be safely, democratically opening up to do the work of the people. The legislature has the power to bring itself back into session, and it should do so this summer, to take on the work of creating equitable and healthy communities and to prevent widening disparities that the state’s current course of action threatens to create. The issues of systemic racism and other inequities that existed before COVID-19 are even more important for the legislature to tackle now.
To be clear, while the Lamont administration says it is calling legislative leadership to keep them apprised, that is not a stand-in for true accountability to and from the Connecticut General Assembly. After all, legislators will often have insights about the impact of COVID-19 on their constituents that Governor Lamont may not. As evidenced by legislators’ calls for Lamont to be transparent, he also isn’t offering information to all of them. For all intents and purposes, the government right now is consolidated into just the executive branch, without real transparency and without the check of the people’s houses.
That brings us back to today. What does it tell us that Lamont chose to open more workers, families, and customers into potential exposure to COVID-19 when a virus is disproportionately killing and sickening Black and Latino people? What does it say that he is telling people to get back to work when the government has not created the conditions to make working safely possible? And what does it mean when this same Governor’s lawyers are arguing in court, right now, that a “just” 1% mortality rate from COVID-19 wouldn’t constitute a “sufficient risk” to one group of 11,000 people in our state who are 68 percent Black and Latinx?
People directly impacted by Lamont’s actions and inactions have tried to tell him what they need to sustain what really drives our state: people. Lamont, by and large, hasn’t listened.
If that pattern continues, especially without the transparency of Freedom of Information laws and the accountability of an active legislature, it could mean widening the already vast inequities in our state.