Usually in this space, we take a look back a few decades to see what was occupying Cheshire’s attention.
No matter the gap in time, whether 20 or 50 years in the past, we usually find that some overarching themes persist. The community fights over budgets, applauds the hard work of its citizenry, and adapts to the difficult moments of the time.
But instead of taking a long journey to Cheshire’s past this month, we felt it appropriate to turn the calendar back just 12 months. Whether coincidence or not, May seems to have been a very important month during this pandemic moment.
It was back in May of last year that the town and state began to peek their heads above the rolling waves of lockdown, beginning what became a rather disjointed “reopening” of Connecticut that would see many starts and stops, and numerous delays. While no one could know the future at the time, it felt like May of 2020 was the beginning of a long and slow process, and those feelings turned out to be right.
And much like our current moment, everyone seemed to be approaching things in a cautious manner.
The month began with word that schools would remain closed through the remainder of the school year. While there had been some hope in April of 2020 that school buildings could reopen sometime in the spring, all such optimism was dashed on May 5 when Governor Ned Lamont announced that remote learning would continue indefinitely.
As the May 7, 2020, front page article of The Herald recounted, the news didn’t come as a surprise to those in town, but did come as a blow:
“I think most people felt that this was coming, especially after seeing New Jersey close down schools, but it’s still a little bit of a setback for us,” said Cheshire Superintendent of Schools Jeff Solan. “We really wanted an opportunity to reunite with our kids, but that is not going to happen this year.”
Cheshire’s Board of Education Chairman, Tony Perugini, recognizes that this announcement comes as a shock to many students.
“… I feel for the CHS seniors graduating this year. My daughter is one of them and her class was hoping to finish out the last few weeks of school at CHS,” he said. “… We now have to look beyond this school year and prepare for the fall and what that might look like for our schools. I personally don’t expect a normal opening and fully expect that restrictions will be set on how/when schools open and operate for the next school year. Safety will be priority number one. I believe this will put additional strains on our budgets and on the town if these restrictions place unfunded mandates and costs on our town.
According to Solan, Cheshire students will continue with the remote learning initiatives that have been implemented by the District since mid-March. Solan also announced that all final examinations have been canceled.
Ironically, while schools were reacting to the announcement that students wouldn’t be allowed back into the buildings until at least the fall, the rest of the state was preparing for what was being described as Phase 1 of the state’s comprehensive plans to reopen. According to Gov. Lamont and leading state health experts, the process would happen in several stages, with the first kicking off on May 20, where select businesses would be allowed to reopen for limited services, restaurants would be allowed to resume dining, but only outdoors, and everyone would have to maintain strict safety protocols in order to keep things open.
Phase II and Phase III were scheduled for June and July, with the potential for a loosening of most restrictions in August.
As everyone knows now, the state only ever made it to the Phase II stage in June, delaying Phase III approximately three months, and then only implementing it few weeks in October until Phase II restrictions were reinstated.
However, in early May, the town’s health officials were preparing for a limited reopening of the community, and expressing concern about what that might mean for the spread of the virus, as Maura Esposito, Chesprocott Health Director, informed The Herald in the May 7 edition of the paper:
As of Monday afternoon, Cheshire had 82 positive cases of coronavirus reported, comprising 67 households, and 14 fatalities. The majority of those deaths have occurred at local nursing, retirement, and group homes in Cheshire, but Esposito pointed out that, even though there are more than 25 such facilities in Cheshire, only two have reported what would be considered an outbreak.
Keeping the illness out of these communities has been difficult, Esposito said.
“A lot of the damage was done early on,” she explained. “The (facilities) did everything they possibly could do, but we just don’t have enough medical staff. People who are working at nursing homes, many are also working at hospitals or other facilities, so they are exposed to (the virus) and then they bring it back.”
Esposito stressed that the reason for the lockdowns has been to try and prevent the illness, which has proven exceptionally dangerous for elderly individuals suffering from other illnesses, from spreading among people who are most vulnerable.
“I think a lot of people just really don’t understand why we are (taking the precautions) we are,” said Esposito. “It’s really about trying to protect those people (whose bodies) can’t protect them.”
“That’s probably my greatest fear (about reopening) ... that people are going to set us back,” she continued. “My fear is people are going to be sick and go someplace and sneeze and set us back after all the hard work we’ve done.”
While Esposito was obviously worried about the spread of the virus, others were beginning to worry more about the impact of prolonged lockdowns on local businesses. That seemed to come to a head towards the end of the month, when Gov. Ned Lamont, in what amounted to an 11th-hour decision, decided to delay the reopening of hair salons throughout the state, for fear over their ability to resume operations safely. As several owners of local establishments here in Cheshire explained to The Herald for a May 28 article, the move felt like a “slap in the face”:
The decision, which came only two days before many salons were set to reopen, has now left them scrambling to figure out what to do next.
“I feel like what Lamont did was just so disrespectful to our industry, ” said Patty Brokaw of Cappola-Brokaw Art of Hair on Elm Street. “It’s a big slap in the face to those of us who are ready and took the time to make all the necessary changes so that it is safe to operate.”
The announcement took many local salons by surprise, having been preparing for the May 20 reopen date for a while. In an effort to support the local businesses, the Cheshire Chamber of Commerce released a statement saying they “are concerned about the recovery of our economy and the health and wellbeing of our community during this unprecedented time.”
“On Tuesday morning, I had an all-staff meeting with my stylists so we could all make sure we were on the same page in terms of protocols and training,” Brokaw explained. “And then, minutes later, (Lamont) made the announcement.”
As The Herald’s editorial that week explained, such last-minute decisions, even when done in the name of caution and safety, could have profound consequences. It would become a theme throughout the course of the pandemic:
It’s understandable that both leaders and public health officials want to be as cautious as possible in reopening the state. No one wants to see the number of people hospitalized or dying due to COVID-19 begin to rise again, not after so much has been sacrificed over the last few weeks to help move those numbers in the right direction. No one wants to unnecessarily put people’s lives at risk.
Yet, an overabundance of caution, even if warranted, has real and profound impact. It’s not simply inconvenient for local hair salons to remain closed; it could potentially put their businesses in jeopardy.
It’s also incumbent on leaders to better explain such consequential decisions. Lamont simply suggesting that he thought it was time “take a step back” probably wasn’t enough to assuage the concerns of business owners.
But perhaps it was another piece of advice, offered in the May 21 edition of the paper, that continues to ring true — a need to confront our invisible enemy with caution and courage:
As Connecticut begins its phased-in approach to reopening this week, with it comes a certain level of risk. The disease that forced us all into our homes is still out there, and it will be for some time. While hope remains for a vaccine or anti-viral drugs to treat the illness, none exist at the moment and there are no guarantees that they will arrive.
There are many illnesses in this world, and not all of them come with a vaccine.
That means, for anywhere from a few weeks to a few years, we are going to have to try and figure out a way to live in a world where the virus is a reality. We are going to have to show a bit of courage as we get back into our normal lives. We are going to have to be brave.
Of course, the vaccines did arrive, and in record time. And now we find ourselves in May of 2021, just having entered the end stage of this pandemic, with mandates being lifted and restrictions rolled back.
We still live in a world where this disease exists. We still live in a world where precautions are necessary. But in looking back for a moment at what the world looked like 12 short months ago, it’s important to recognize just how much progress has been made, and despite many mistakes and missteps along the way, how successful this town, state and country has been at fighting back this terrible and deadly disease.
In May of 2020, the question was whether we could open the door to our normal lives even a crack without risking too much. Now, the question is about when and how to throw that door wide open.
COVID-19 is not behind us just yet, but efforts over the last year have ensured that the virus is very much being pushed to the side. That has made for a much more joyful, and hopeful, May than the one we confronted one year ago.