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A sign in North Stonington promotes mask wearing to stem spread of COVID-19. Sun file photo

A rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in the region over the past month and concerns regarding the virus spreading have led town officials in southeastern Connecticut to ask Gov. Ned Lamont to consider reinstating a statewide mask mandate.

Stonington First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough and North Stonington First Selectman Michael Urgo each said this week that members of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, an intergovernmental agency with representatives from 22 communities, have partnered with communities represented by the Capital Region Council of Governments to request the mandate. Both said the request is part of ongoing regional efforts to promote vaccination, educate the public and help protect residents by curbing the spread of COVID-19.

“This isn’t something where a town could simply respond with their own ordinance. People do not stay in the one town they live in and it is important for everybody to be on the same page,” said Urgo, who serves as vice chairman of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. “In discussing it last week among members, the feeling was that it would be helpful to return to a mask mandate.”

The call for restrictions, which would be specific to indoor interactions only, comes as both the state and New London County saw a significant spike in the number of overall cases over the past five weeks.

According to data from the Ledge Light Health District, a rise in the number of weekly cases began the week ending July 17, when the district reported 43 new cases among its nine member towns despite having just 9 the week before. It has since continued to trend upward week after week, with 203 cases reported for the period ending Aug. 14, according to data released late last week.

In the past two weeks, Ledge Light reported 33 new cases in Stonington and 13 new cases in North Stonington. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Stonington has had 1,212 cases and 32 COVID-associated deaths, while North Stonington has had 335 cases and 4 associated deaths.

Data collected is specific to people residing in those communities and does not include cases or tests among nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

Urgo said at this stage, his biggest concern is how the spread may impact those who can’t be vaccinated, including older adults with preexisting conditions that render vaccines less effective, or children under the age of 12 who have not been cleared to receive the vaccines.

“Some of those who are not eligible to get the vaccine are now at the greatest risk. That’s what we need to look out for,” Urgo said.

Area towns have already taken on additional precautions in an effort to help protect staff and local residents. Stonington, North Stonington and Groton, for example, have each returned to requiring the use of masks within town hall. Chesebrough said, at least for Stonington, this requirement would remain in place indefinitely while the transmission rate remains high. Town officials said concerns regarding staff who were high-risk and recent studies showing the spread of the delta variant through those who are vaccinated each played a role in the decision to require the masks.

Chesebrough said officials have also been working on a public education campaign to promote vaccination and safe social-distancing habits when necessary. The town has been somewhat fortunate with a 69% fully vaccinated rate — Waterford holds one of the highest rates among Ledge Light towns with a 72% vaccination rate — but others in the region have been less successful. North Stonington’s rate was 57% as of Friday, and the district’s more populated communities, including New London and Groton, were at rates of 57% and 56% respectively.

“We have spent time over the past few weeks reaching out directly to businesses and promoting the use of signs to encourage people to get vaccinated,” Chesebrough said. “We are not trying to force anything, but we are trying to educate people and encourage use of masks in higher risk areas.”

Although there is desire for a mandate, both Chesebrough and Urgo said they would not consider a local mask mandate beyond those in place for specific town-owned buildings. Due to the region’s geography, both said there many residents who cross town borders if not state borders on a near daily basis, and as a result any municipal ordinances to require masks would be largely ineffective.

Both Chesebrough and Urgo said they would continue to work on behalf of all residents in the region, seeking to further promote vaccinations and use of masks indoors in the coming weeks. The easiest way to make it through the latest wave is to work together and protect one another, they each said.

“If people would be willing to wear masks, it is a precaution that will go a long way to helping curb the spread,” Chesebrough said. “There’s no desire to have to tell people that they need to wear masks indoors, but if something doesn’t change and the numbers continue to climb, then it may get to a point where (a mask mandate) needs to be done.”

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