WALLINGFORD — Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. is a holdout among area town officials who are limiting public access to town halls and canceling board and commission meetings due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dickinson said this week that he’s not curtailing Town Hall hours because it might lead to a concentration of people who all come in at one time.
“We’d rather have it over a longer period of time than have an influx of people needing service,” he said. “As time goes on, this could certainly change.”
He’s also not allowing employees to work from home.
“Work cannot be performed from home,” he said. “Important in-the-field work requires labor outside and labor inside. It can’t be done by someone from home. We need police, fire, health code people, and education to be functional.”
He also said that each department “is providing an essential service to allow other departments to function,” he said.
Dickinson is, however, asking the public to help safeguard town employees.
In a statement issued Wednesday, he asked people not to “enter a government building, or other business, if you are suffering from coughing, sneezing, or shortness of breath.”
Town councilors spoke this week about Dickinson’s policy as they prepared to hold their regular meeting as scheduled next week.
Democratic Councilor Gina Morgenstein, a physician assistant at Meriden urgent care center, said keeping Town Hall running business as usual is “an unacceptable decision on his part.”
“We’ve got community spread of this virus,” she said. “He’s putting the town workers at risk with this decision.”
She said that as a medical professional, she’s seeing people in her office who should be self-quarantining.
“This virus can be changing and we may not know,” she said. “You can be asymptomatic for any number of days, not know you’re passing it around.”
Republican Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni said Friday that business needs to continue, but that “a policy limiting public access to Town Hall might be appropriate.”
Cervoni said he’s not yet working from home. He was absent from the Town Council’s March 10 meeting on a skiing trip in western Canada, he said.
He said he didn’t have any concerns after visiting the area, and that Seattle, an early epicenter of coronavirus outbreak, “was over a four-hour car ride from where we were.”
Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein, who’s also a state representative for District 90, said Friday that he couldn’t comment on Dickinson’s decision to keep Town Hall open.
If Dickinson were to limit hours or send employees home, “I would be supportive of any action assuming I have full knowledge” of what Dickinson deemed an essential and non-essential employee to be, he said.
He added that he doesn’t want to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, which has played out worldwide, but he doesn’t agree with Gov. Ned Lamont’s order to close non-essential private businesses.
Democratic Councilor Jason Zandri, a Microsoft business program manager, said Friday that he didn’t agree with keeping a full staff at Town Hall.
“We should have gone with reduced staff,” he said, “and that kind of plays a little bit into the fact that we’re behind the times as a town for being able to have people work remotely.”
He said that he could see asking some staff to stay “on a volunteer basis, but everybody could be working remotely if we were set up for that but we’re not.”
Zandri travels for work to New York City and Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, which is just outside Seattle and borders the city of Kirkland where the first U.S. deaths were reported.
He said that it’s been six weeks since he visited Redmond and doesn’t believe he was exposed to the coronavirus.
Republican Vice Chairman Tom Laffin said that he “fully trusts” the decisions of Dickinson and the town Health Department.
“A pandemic is not strong enough to stop our government or community from continuing to meet its needs and obligations to the people,” he said, “and those of us who are involved with it and work for it, know that and are a part of it.”
He added that he does support limiting the public’s access to Town Hall and meetings.
“We need to listen to what our state and federal officials are saying and keep public contact down,” he said. “I do believe there is a far reaching, unnecessary level panic across the board that should, just like hospital space and time, be reserved for those who are compromised.”
Democratic Councilor Vincent Testa felt the opposite way.
“It’s a bit irresponsible,” he said, “as far as not keeping in mind the health and safety of all the employees and the public, and it's not keeping in line with all of the best practice guidance that we’ve been getting.”
He said he recognizes that some business has to be done.
“Unforunately, we’re clearly paying the price right now for the inaction over many years of not providing for more e-business, as far as town government functions go.”
Republican Councilor Joe Marrone said he doesn’t agree with keeping Town Hall open.
“The mayor’s position is that everyone is essential,” he said. “I can’t imagine any organization where everyone could possibly be essential.”
Since so many surrounding towns have done so, “I don’t think there would be an issue with closing Town Hall to the public, just for a couple weeks or until we have a better handle on what the situation is.”
He also would support limiting the public’s access to town meetings.
Republican Councilor Chris Shortell said that he’s “very concerned” that Town Hall remains open, and would support limiting hours or only allowing in-person interactions via appointment.
“I understand the need for government to operate, but I do not feel that every single employee is essential,” he said.
Shortell is a marketing director at Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and currently working from home. He said that the goal of the social distancing and closures is not only to keep the most vulnerable safe, but also to reduce the influx of patients on the health care system so it’s not overloaded.
“It’s serious because there are so many unknowns and so little data,” he said. “We need widespread testing to truly determine the extent of the virus, and then follow how quickly it’s spreading … I think this crisis will likely leave a lasting change just like Sept. 11 did.”
Councilor Christina Tatta was not available for comment.