STONINGTON — Plans to continue to roll back restrictions of both private and public gatherings in July will provide opportunities for social interaction, but local officials are urging residents to continue to follow social distancing protocols to prevent a second spike in COVID-19 cases.

Stonington First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough and North Stonington First Selectman Michael Urgo each said that they are urging local residents to take advanatage of the summer opportunities in a manner that maintains safety for themselves and those they come into contact with.

"This is going to be an important opportunity for both our businesses and residents to get out and enjoy the weather, but it needs to be done safely," Chesebrough said Wednesday. "We don't know what the fall or winter will hold, but we want everyone to do their part to help prevent another spike and, hopefully, prevent the need for further restrictions."

For those in southeastern Connecticut, reopening efforts have been slow but steady over the past few weeks. Under phase two, nearly 95% of all community businesses were allowed to reopen with restrictions that included requiring masks, limiting crowds and encouraging regular sanitation of stores and restaurants.

On June 17, Lamont further reduced restrictions to allow for indoor private gatherings of 25 people, outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people and even events at outdoor venues provided those crowds did not exceed 25% of the venue's fire capacity and the facility included physical barriers to enforce distancing.

If Connecticut continues to see a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations — the state has seen consistent week-to-week declines since the end of April and is among national leaders in "flattening the curve," according to data from Johns Hopkins University — restrictions would be scaled back even further on July 3 to allow up to 150 people at outdoor gatherings for graduations and up to 500 people at organized outdoor gatherings provided there is 15 feet between blankets and social distancing is followed.

By mid-July, Lamont said the goal is to allow for up to 50 people at indoor gatherings, 250 people for private outdoor gatherings, 50% of capacity for outdoor event venues and no cap for outdoor events provided proper space and social-distancing measures are in place.

Chesebrough said these events will be really important for local communities this summer for several reasons. She said the larger gatherings are essential to allow fundraisers for local businesses and particularly nonprofits, many of which were forced to cancel spring programs already and will need the fundraising income to continue to provide needed services in the greater Stonington area.

For most people in the region, the pandemic eliminated many social gatherings and the ability to do things and see people will be necessary for the mental health of local residents, she said.

"I think for many people, it is a mental health thing. We are, as humans, social by nature, and it's important to recognize that people need to be able to get out and interact, to have gatherings on occasion," Chesebrough said. "It is also important to gather responsibility and work together to prevent a spike in the number of cases."

Concerns regarding local residents not wearing face masks and other activities — for example, Chesebrough said she's seen an exponential increase in the number of handshakes and high fives recently — also led the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, in partnership with the Ledge Light Health District, to issue a statement urging residents not to give up on safety precautions.

In the statement, which Urgo shared with The Sun, members warned residents to continue to practice social distancing and to avoid letting recommendations regarding wearing a mask become a political issue.

SCCOG represents 22 municipalities in southeastern Connecticut including both Stonington and North Stoningto,n and has members who are registered as Democrats, Republicans, Independents and unaffiliated.

“We are seeing a rise in cases around the globe where reopening is happening. Combine that with the recent protests and there is continued risk of COVID-19 spreading," the organization said. "Leadership at the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments all agree, wearing a mask is not a political issue, it is a lifesaving one.”

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