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The Fitch Files: The state made an example of her with a $2,000 COVID fine, but she’s fighting back

On July 25, 2020, Audrey Hussey left her rented house in Putnam, Connecticut and caught a flight from Providence, Rhode Island to New Orleans. The trip would fulfill two long-time dreams for Audrey: To visit New Orleans and to take a monumental step toward opening her own martial arts studio after decades of training and teaching. 

The nation was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, but Audrey’s life was also in a tailspin.

In March of 2020 her husband had filed for divorce and she lost her job teaching Karate to school children in Rhode Island as the pandemic shutdown closed schools and businesses. She and her husband had moved to separate residences; Audrey stayed in Putnam, while he relocated to Massachusetts. 

A mother of six, Audrey still had two school-age children and was left with little income. For all intents and purposes, the divorce was amicable, but the couple faced delays in the court system that postponed settlement for child support and alimony. 

Out of work for the foreseeable future, Audrey started painting houses to help make ends meet.

But that time of weakness and desperation also became a time of strength. 

At 54, the tattooed third-degree blackbelt, artist and former competitive bodybuilder found herself wholly independent and on her own for the first time in decades.

Audrey decided she would pursue her dream of opening her own Karate studio. Through her contacts in online forums for martial arts studio owners, she connected with a consultant from iKarate Live who could help her set up a website and develop a business plan. 

He lived in Louisiana and flights were outrageously cheap: $150 for a round trip to New Orleans and back.

It was something I needed to do. Go somewhere by myself. I was married for thirty years. I’d been in a house with eight people for thirty years and all of a sudden I’m alone and I’m terrified and I’m like, this is going to be a game changer for me.

Audrey Hussey

“It was something I needed to do,” Audrey said. “Go somewhere by myself. I was married for thirty years, I’d been in a house with eight people for thirty years and all of a sudden I’m alone and I’m terrified and I’m like, this is going to be a game-changer for me,” Audrey said. “This is going to be a turning point in my life.”

“I’m literally trying to create a life. My divorce wasn’t final yet, I’m in the throes of just complete depression and I… I just had to get out of here,” Audrey said. “So, I hop on a plane and I hope in my heart I’m going to plan this. I met with the consultant down there and we set up a website, we set up a business plan.”

Audrey left her children with their father and took the trip. She took all the precautions required by airports, airlines, businesses and social settings. She wore her mask, she sanitized her hands and she spent three days working with the consultant and seeing a New Orleans that was eerily quiet and empty.

She retuned on July 28, traveling back into Providence and then to home in Connecticut. She picked up her children from their father, had to buy groceries and then drop off her son at camp and picked him up three days later. She taught one Karate class for kids (with masks, she says) outdoors in a Rhode Island park and, other than that, kept to herself. 

Audrey’s trip to New Orleans was fateful. The meeting with the Karate school consultant was productive, but she made a mistake: She took a picture of herself in The Big Easy and posted it to Instagram.

When a former neighbor – someone she had considered a friend – saw the post, she alerted Connecticut authorities.

On August 4, 2020 – one day after her divorce was finalized – Audrey received a call from the Department of Public Health informing her she would be subjected to a $2,000 fine for failure to fill out a travel form and not quarantining after traveling to a state listed on Connecticut’s travel advisory.

Audrey quickly scheduled a rapid COVID test in Waterbury for August 6 and received a negative test result. She called DPH and informed them that she tested negative. The test results — now an exhibit in the appeal — didn’t matter. They were issuing the fine regardless.

On August 10, Gov. Ned Lamont announced the state had begun its first round of imposing fines on people who either broke the travel advisory or quarantine rules. Although not mentioned by name Lamont did mention the violator had flown in from Louisiana. 

“We want to send a message loud and clear,” Lamont said during his daily press conference. “We have two folks who flew back to Connecticut, one from Louisiana, one from Florida, neither of them filled out the form. They’re paying a $1,000 fine. One of them didn’t fill out the form and refused to quarantine, and we were noticed by a work-mate of that person, and they’re paying an additional $1,000 for violating the quarantine.”

“I hate to do it, but we’re going to be serious, show people we’re serious about this,” Lamont said.

“I’m Not Guilty”

Audrey claims she was never aware of the travel restrictions. She says she didn’t have cable television and wasn’t a consumer of news. She was aware that Gov. Ned Lamont was issuing executive orders but there were so many – and with the news constantly shifting — she gave up trying to keep track.

Gov. Lamont first issued travel restrictions – requiring travelers to fill out notices or self-quarantine on June 24, 2020.

The executive order enabling fines to be levied by DPH didn’t come until July 21 and were not enforced until July 24 – the day before Audrey left for New Orleans.

DPH had set up tables in Bradley International Airport with workers making travelers aware of Connecticut’s restrictions and encouraging them to fill out the necessary travel form, but Audrey had flown into Providence.

At that time, Rhode Island was in Phase III of its reopening schedule. According to a June 30, 2020 executive order issued by Gov. Gina Raimondo, travelers to Rhode Island for non-work-related reasons were expected to self-quarantine for 14 days with the exception of obtaining “groceries, gas or medication, to drop off or pick up children from day care, summer camps or to anyone who must work on their boats.”

According to the Providence Journal, it wasn’t until August 9, 2020 that Rhode Island required those visiting from affected states who planned to stay in a hotel or rental sign a certificate of compliance and the state began to post employees at airports and train stations to advise them of their quarantine rules.

But, obviously, Connecticut’s travel restrictions and forms were not enforced in Rhode Island, nor was Audrey made aware of them upon her return to T.F. Greene Airport.

Audrey could have lied about where she went and what she did between the time she returned to Connecticut and when DPH officials contacted her. She could have said she quarantined but having no idea she had done anything wrong she was truthful, earning her second $1,000 fine.

“Now if somebody who was willfully refusing, I could have just lied to her,” Audrey said, “but I didn’t, I was honest, and I was like ‘what is the problem?’”

Audrey says she was already “kind of” quarantining.

“I don’t go anywhere. I’m a single mom,” Audrey said. “I have my kids during the week, I have to go grocery shopping. I have to do these things. I don’t have people to do it for me. I don’t have anybody to help me.”

“Somebody who was willfully refusing would not have taken eight hours out of my day to drive to Waterbury, stand outside with all these people, get tested, stand around and wait to get my test results,” Audrey said. “I did the thing and they didn’t care.”

Then came a minor social media pile-on – part of today’s internet shaming culture. Audrey says the hint that Connecticut’s first COVID violator had recently returned from Louisiana was enough for some people to connect the dots and she started receiving messages on social media accusing her of endangering lives.

“It was humiliating,” Audrey said. “Because they knew right away when they said somebody went to Louisiana, dozens of people messaged me immediately saying they’re talking about you on the news.”

“I had people messaging me saying ‘What were you thinking? That’s so selfish,'” Audrey said. “I’m sitting here struggling to pay to live and I’m selfish. Okay.”

But she was also angry. She didn’t feel that she had knowingly done anything wrong and didn’t feel that she should be made an example of.

I may not be scofflaw, so to speak, but I’m not going to sit there and cower while these people are running roughshod over my life and they don’t care, I’m just a name on a piece of paper

Audrey Hussey

“I may not be scofflaw, so to speak, but I’m not going to sit there and cower while these people are running roughshod over my life and they don’t care, I’m just a name on a piece of paper,” Audrey said. “I watched them with their smug faces telling the world they were going to make an example of people, I lost it. You’ve already destroyed my life and now you’re going to do it again.”

She connected with Representative Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, for help. DPH allows five business days to request a hearing to contest the fine. 

Fishbein, together with fellow State Representative and attorney Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, have, throughout the pandemic, filed court cases challenging the constitutionality of the lockdown orders, business closures and mask requirements in public schools earning them a small amount of praise from some corners of the state, but a larger amount of criticism from both the government and media.

“I’m very proud to represent people who, in good faith, believe they’ve been wronged by their government,” Fishbein said. “That is the role of the lawyer, to stick up for the little guy when they can’t necessarily do it themselves. Not everyone knows the ins and outs of the law and that’s what a lawyer brings to the table.” 

Audrey filed an appeal against the fines and a DPH hearing was held on September 3, 2020. The argument hinged on whether Audrey had “willfully” violated the travel restrictions.

July 21 Executive Order authorizing fines

According to Lamont’s initial executive order authorizing fines for travel violators, “Any Affected Traveler who violates this subsection by willfully refusing or failing to self-quarantine or complete the Travel Health Form truthfully and accurately shall be subject to a civil penalty of up to one thousand dollars for each violation.”

According to the hearing notice, DPH “shall be required to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence,” that Audrey “Willfully refused or failed to complete the mandatory Health Travel Form” and “Willfully refused to self-quarantine.”

Despite having a negative COVID test – which should have alleviated any concerns that she had contracted or spread the virus – the governor’s executive order required the test be taken 72 hours prior to travel, which means, had she known about the order, she would have needed to obtain a COVID test upon arrival in New Orleans.

In her December 14, 2020 decision, Hearing Officer Alfreda Gaither maintained that Audrey had violated Connecticut’s travel restrictions, but the fine was lowered to $200.

“There was no evidence that she knew anything about the travel ban and fines,” Fishbein said. “It became quite clear at the hearing that the individual who was charged with issuing the fine was basically told to fine everybody a thousand dollars. I asked, where is the discretion?”

Attorney and State Representative Craig Fishbein

“These kind of provisions, if appropriate, should not be revenue raising functions of the state government, they’re there ostensibly to protect public health,” Fishbein said, “But in this particular case, it’s quite clear that the Department of Public Health was not there to help.”

In her December 14, 2020 decision, Hearing Officer Alfreda Gaither maintained that Audrey had violated Connecticut’s travel restrictions, but the fine was lowered to $200.

While most people would count that as a win, pay the fine and walk away, Audrey has instead filed an appeal in the court system to dismiss the fine altogether.

“I’m not guilty,” Audrey says. “They’re saying I willfully refused or failed to — willfully. And I did not and they have no right to do this to people.”

“I don’t care if they lower it to two dollars, I’m not paying it without a fight,” Audrey said. “I have been beaten down enough, thank you.”

According to the appeal filed on January 25, 2021, “The DPH failed to present any evidence that the appellant had prior notice of the travel restrictions, and therefore the DPH failed to prove the Appellant acted willfully. Therefore, eh decision of the Hearing Officer Gaither to sustain any fine against the Appellant was improper, illegal, arbitrary, and capricious.”

Notably, in September of 2020 Lamont amended his executive order regarding travel restrictions and fines for violations and the word “willfully” was stripped from the executive order language.

A New Start

Even in the midst of an international pandemic, Audrey managed to realize one of her dreams: In November of 2020, she opened her first Karate studio in Rhode Island. The kids wear masks and have a chance to get out of the house, out from in front of their computer screens to exercise, learn and train.

“You know what? They didn’t stop me,” Audrey said. “I opened this school and it’s growing organically, quickly.”

The effect of the government’s civil fine against Audrey has turned her into more of an activist, although probably not in the direction the state would have preferred.

She joined several other individuals and businesses in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the validity of Lamont’s executive orders and, although the lawsuit was dismissed, she continues to press forward with her case against DPH.

She has started a Go Fund Me page to help raise money for her fight. Fishbein and Dubitsky have taken on her case pro bono but there are court fees to be paid. To date she has raised $600.

Moreover, she now questions the politics behind the pandemic, the lockdowns, the restrictions and even the vaccines. Whereas she was not politically engaged prior to her fines, the heavy-handed nature of government during these unprecedented times left her questioning the underlying motives of decision makers at the highest levels of government and the way fear can turn friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor.

She still wears her mask and she still sanitizes her hands regularly as she has since the beginning of the pandemic. She follows the rules both in her personal life and in her business, but not without question or suspicion. 

If this she could be made an example of in this instance, who could be next and why?

Despite the vaccine rollout, the pandemic remains in full swing with cases increasing in states like California even as some business restrictions are eased. Connecticut’s numbers saw an upswing and then began to trend downward slowly again. Concerns and fears of mutated strains of the virus hang like a cloud over the hope that maybe the pandemic will soon be behind us.

But the effects of the pandemic, the lockdowns and the restrictions are sure to remain long after as relationship between government and the populace have perhaps been forever altered. 

That change could prove good or bad or just different in the long-run, but monumental change does not come without collateral damage: Businesses have been closed – often permanently – people have been put out of work and governments at all levels have spent trillions trying to balance a precarious economy with public safety. 

Audrey was part of that collateral damage and it came at a point in her life when she was perhaps at her lowest, but she has managed to pick herself up and push back and find a new life despite the hardships.

She started a new business and is now independent, fulfilling her dreams and working hard.

The state tried to make an example out of her for violating its travel restrictions and perhaps it did: She was down but never out, and she never gave up, even when faced with a pandemic, a life-changing divorce and a government that sought to make an example of her.

Marc E. Fitch

Marc E. Fitch is the author of several books and novels including Shmexperts: How Power Politics and Ideology are Disguised as Science and Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot. Marc was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and his work has appeared in The Federalist, American Thinker, The Skeptical Inquirer, World Net Daily and Real Clear Policy. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University. Marc can be reached at [email protected]

2 Comments

  1. Judy
    February 8, 2021 @ 3:03 pm

    Government Is out of control these days. They release criminals without bond in case they can’t afford it and yet this woman is just living an honest life. Ridiculous

    Reply

  2. Todd smith
    February 8, 2021 @ 10:10 pm

    King Ned and his Edics are out of Control. I’m curios, whaT would happen If a citzen just refused to pay the fine? I s there an actual statute that allows this or is it something that he just decreed?

    Reply

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