Westport’s 20 confirmed coronavirus cases is half of the state’s total
WESTPORT — First Selectman Jim Marpe announced Monday the town’s confirmed coronavirus cases have reached 20 — nearly half of the state’s total of 41 — as he declared a Local Civil Preparedness Emergency.
“The onset of the COVID-19 virus has introduced a public health crisis to Westport,” Marpe said in a news release.
According to Marpe, of the 31 Westport residents that recently tested for the presence of the virus, 20 tested positive.
“This confirms that the virus has developed a significant presence in our community and highlights the need to take a much more aggressive action to limit the spread of the virus through social contact,” he said.
The news comes after more than a dozen people started experiencing flu-like symptoms after attending a private party in town, where one of the guests who does not live in the U.S. was believed to have the coronavirus. Westport schools and town hall closed shortly thereafter out of caution.
On Tuesday, Westport-Weston Health District Director Mark Cooper confirmed the positive cases tied back to the party.
“Our initial testing effort was for those connected to the index case,” Cooper said. “At that time we didn’t know how widespread it was.”
Cooper noted further testing will no longer be done by the health district. Instead the state will be conducting tests at several locations, including Danbury, Bridgeport and Waterbury’s hospitals. Residents can call the state’s 2-1-1 line if advised by their primary care provider to arrange for testing, or if they have questions about being tested.
“It’s no longer about a party or one location,” Cooper said. “We don’t know who does not have it, so you should assume everyone does and take the proper precautions.”
To prevent further spread, all restaurants and locations where food or beverages are prepared have been prohibited from all in-restaurant and outside service as of 8 p.m. Monday. No customers are allowed inside restaurants until the governor’s order is lifted.
“Delivery of food and beverages and curb-side pickup of food and beverages is permitted, subject to all existing laws,” the news release said. “This prohibition does not apply to cafeterias where employers provide meals exclusively for employees and residents/patients.”
All commercial gyms and fitness centers will also be closed. The Weston Racquet Club voluntarily closed Monday afternoon after realizing someone who played there as recently as March 10 has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a statement on the club’s website.
According to Westport’s release, barbershops, nail and hair salons will only be allowed to serve through appointments. There are no social or other gatherings allowed at the Inn at Longshore, the release said.
Marpe also closed beaches and parks, due to a number of residents continuing to gather there over the weekend.
The growing number of state cases — especially the high concentration in Westport — also raises the question of possible government-imposed quarantines and its legality. So far, Westport appears to be the town with the largest outbreak in the state.
Just half an hour away, New Rochelle, N.Y., created a “containment area” after reporting more than 100 cases of the coronavirus. “The difference between isolation and quarantine is isolation is the term used when somebody is confined and is, in fact, infected with a communicable disease,” said Stephen Cowherd, attorney of Pullman & Comley. “Quarantine is a broader term that is used when an individual may have been exposed to a communicable disease.”
Currently people have been advised by public health officials to self-quarantine, he said, which is looser than a written order by a town’s director of health. Following Lamont’s declaration of a public health emergency, Cowherd said local health officials have been given broader discretion on orders to protect public health
“(The director of health) has to make the determination that the individual subject to the order is posing a substantial threat to public health, and that it’s necessary to issue that order to protect public health,” Cowherd said.
Generally under state law, these orders are for up to 20 days, but further orders can be issued to hold the same individual in qurantine or isolation if it’s issued on the last business day of the preceding period of isolation or quarantine. Individuals subject to isolation or quarantine can also appeal the order.
Cowherd said, as a health lawyer, he hasn’t seen an impact like the coronavirus during his career.
“I think this is fairly unprecedented for both Connecticut and the United States on this scale since maybe 1918,” he said, adding there’s concern of the effects of potential widespread quarantine orders and people challenging them.
“Much like the health care system is concerned with being overwhelmed, the probate court system could be overwhelmed with these challenges,” he said.
The announcement of restaurants being forced into take-out and delivery services, as well as other locations closing, leaves an added impact on workers and business owners.
Another Pullman & Comley attorney, Jonathan Orleans, said employees and employers alike are naturally both concerned about safety.
“Certainly we’ve been telling our clients that the employers’ paramount obligation is to provide a safe working environment for your employees, as well as your customers and clients,” said Orleans, of Fairfield.
Employers could authorize employees to use paid time off to compensate for time they may have to stay home if they can’t work from home. They can also tell their employees to use vacation or sick leave to compensate for the absensces, he said.
“We are also seeing some employers essentially saying they’re going to grant additional paid leave to their employees who have to stay home and can’t otherwise be paid,” Orleans said.
Employers subject to the family medical leave act — state or federal — are obligated to grant leave for employees with serious health conditions, or those who have to take care of family with these conditions.
“But leave under the family medical leave act is generally unpaid leave,” Orleans said. “So that may not do anything for employees concerned for how they’re going to pay the bills.”
While the crisis’ longlasting effects remain unclear, he noted it could accelerate the trend of flexible work space arrangments for employees.
“In some industries, there will have been an acceleration of the trend of allowing people to work at home,” he said. “I think that is a good thing particularly for parents because more flexibility in that way makes it easier to balance the demands of work and home life.”
The country may even see increased legislative action towards mandatory paid sick leave.
“I think that is going to be a part of the social reaction to this crisis,” he said.