Big changes are on the way for employers in Connecticut that have been operating for close to a year under “Sector Rules” — mandatory practices that were set out by the state that businesses had to follow in order to reopen.

All that changes effective March 19th. 

Late Friday, the state updated the website regarding sector rules for reopening. While some mandates remain, most of the requirements are changing to best practices. As the webpage indicates by the DECD:

The following rules apply to all Connecticut businesses and organizations and are effective March 19, 2021. Please keep in mind that it is the cumulative effects gained from social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing that will continue to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Businesses should take these rules as the minimum baseline of precautions needed to protect public health in Connecticut and refer to the recommended guidance by sector listed at the bottom of this page for best practices. Individual establishments should also take additional measures as recommended by industry experts or by common sense applied to their particular situation.

There’s a lot to unpack here; watch for further posts either here or on my firm’s sister site, Employment Law Letter, as we piece this together.  For now, I’m just going to hit a few highlights.

First, what’s still mandated?

  • Capacity limits are now up to 100%, subject to social distancing requirements (unless otherwise noted).
  • 6 ft. spacing and social distancing continues to be required where possible (unless otherwise noted).
  • Masks continue to be required in all public settings where social distancing is not possible.
  • All establishments must follow CDC Cleaning and Disinfecting guidelines.

What is now “recommended”?

  • Businesses/organizations should continue to support local public health contact tracing efforts, such as maintaining a log of employees on-premises over time.
  • Employers should continue to encourage employees to stay home when sick and encourage working from home when possible. In the event of a positive COVID-19 case, employees shall inform their employers and follow state testing and contact tracing protocols.
  • Businesses have the right to refuse service from customers not wearing masks.
  • Social distance markers, signage, and one-way traffic are still encouraged.
  • In terms of ventilation, facilities should work to increase the percentage of outdoor air that circulates into the system where possible, or use window units.
  • Businesses are still encouraged to post clear signage that includes the state hotline (211) for employees and customers to report potential violations of these rules.

For businesses, this is a bit confusing still.  If something is “encouraged”, what happens if employers decide not to follow these recommendations? The state seems to be saying that it will not enforce any penalties but query whether this still leaves employers open to claims by others that employers “should” be following certain rules. As I’ve talked about before, OSHA requires employers to provide a safe workplace; should that mean employers ought to be following this recommendations to provide a safe workplace? Or is a workplace safe without this?

Beyond the above, the new guidance is even more confusing.  Remember all those sector rules that employers have followed? According to the state, beginning on March 19, 2021, those documents “should be treated as recommended best practices”.  Moreover, the rules on the website supersede any conflicting recommendations in the sector guidance.  There are also some specific mandates that still must be followed in certain industries such as restaurants or event venues.

For now, employers should tread carefully.   These changes seem to be a work in progress.  This is a big shift from how businesses have been operating and we’re likely to see more changes over the next few weeks.  Clearly employers can bring more employees back to the workplace. But that doesn’t mean that on March 19th, employers should. The pandemic is still raging despite good progress on the vaccines.  And the risks to employees remain.

One last note: The emergency orders from Governor Lamont are set to expire April 20, 2021. There’s some indication that he may not renew it. So it’s possible that even these recommended practices might change further in another month or so.