SUSAN HAIGH and DAVE COLLINS
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Gov. Ned Lamont announced Friday he is easing pandemic restrictions on religious services, allowing houses of worship to now have up to 100 people inside, or 25 percent capacity, whichever is less.
Outdoor worship services will now be limited to up to 150 people, so long as everyone maintains proper social distancing.
All religious gatherings had previously been limited to 50 people under the governor's earlier orders.
"We wanted to come up with some protocols that we think keep the congregation safe and allow you to worship in an appropriate way," said the Democrat during a news conference on the state Capitol steps, joined by members of the faith community.
Some leaders said they plan or have already taken steps to keep worshipers 6 feet (2 meters) apart, limit physical contact and prevent further spread of the virus by replacing choirs with soloists to reduce the chance of airborne infections. Many said they still plan to continue streaming their services online for older church members.
Kelcy G.L. Steele, pastor of the Varick Memorial AME Zion Church in New Haven and a member of a committee of religious leaders advising Lamont on reopening houses of worship, said his congregation plans to continue to meet virtually.
"I want to see these numbers come down a lot more before we open our doors," he said.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, or death.
In other coronavirus news in Connecticut:
'SOFT REOPENING' PLANNED FOR CASINOS
The state's two federally recognized tribes are planning "soft" reopenings on Saturday for invited patrons and a partial reopening for the general public on Monday, despite opposition from the governor.
Lamont expressed disappointment the two sovereign nations, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, were opening their resort casinos sooner than he'd like, but credited both with taking certain steps to limit customer traffic from the greater region.
"Tomorrow, obviously, is earlier than any of our neighboring casinos and even earlier than Las Vegas. But they took to heart some of the thoughts that we had," he said, adding how both casinos said they would not allow out-of-state guests at their hotels, at least during the first phase of their respective reopenings.
"And for that, I am very appreciative," he said.
A spokesman for the Mohegan Sun said only "select guests are invited for private days. This weekend is not a public reopening," while a spokeswoman for Foxwoods Resort Casino said there will be a "soft opening with a select group of invitation-only guests this weekend" and the property will partly reopen to the public on Monday at 9 a.m.
Lamont said the tribes agreed to advise patrons about the potential health risks of going to a casino now. The governor, who has been particularly concerned about older people gathering in large groups, said if he doesn't think the advisory is strict enough, the state will put up electronic signs to warn people about the risks.
CSCU CAMPUSES REOPENING
The physical campuses of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities will be open to residential and commuter students this fall, albeit with numerous safety protocols in place, CSCU President Mark Ojakian announced Friday.
While many details still need to be worked out, Ojakian said in a written announcement that "opportunities and challenges" have been identified in recent weeks to make the 17 colleges and universities as safe as possible as the state reopens from the coronavirus outbreak. CSCU serves roughly 85,000 enrolled students.
"Our priority has been and will continue to be the safety of our students, faculty and staff," Ojakian said in a written statement. "That will not change as we move forward in our thoughtful and deliberative planning process to welcome students back to our campuses in August."
Under the current plan, residential and commuter students can begin returning to the four state university campuses on Aug. 24. Classes will be held as usual Thanksgiving, while the balance of the semester and exams will be conducted online to help minimize the spread of the coronavirus. The 12 community colleges may also bring students back for the fall semester on Aug. 24 and courses will follow the common calendar.
Meanwhile, the community colleges will be allowed to begin offering limited in-person classes on campus beginning June 1, only for spring semester students who need to complete programs and new students enrolled in workforce development programs.
BUSINESS UTILITY BILLS
Financially struggling Connecticut businesses that have had trouble paying their utility bills during the pandemic have been given a reprieve. The state's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority says it is extending its non-residential customer shut-off moratorium through July 1.
A separate shut-off moratorium for residential customers remains in place until the state's public health and civil preparedness emergency is lifted. Both moratoriums apply to customers of all electric, natural gas and water utilities regulated by PURA, and prohibit service terminations except in instances of public safety.