WALLINGFORD — Encouraged by declining new local cases of COVID-19 and frustrated by the slow rollout of the state reopening plan, the Town Council voted Tuesday to draft a resolution asking for more local control over reopening businesses.
The vote was 8 to 1, with Democratic Councilor Gina Morgenstein voting against the motion to ask Town Corporation Counsel Janis Small to draft the resolution.
“I would be completely unwilling to sign any resolution that questions the governor who is listening to his health department and his scientists,” Morgenstein said, referencing her employment as a physician’s assistant.
Councilor Craig Fishbein proposed the resolution opposing ongoing state restrictions on local businesses.
“I think the people, our constituents, are really clamoring for being able to go back to work,” Fishbein said. “We have restaurants in our downtown … that will never open again, not because of something they did.”
Fishbein didn’t name the restaurants when contacted Wednesday. He said one restaurant owner told him they are not re-opening, and another said it would be very difficult to re-open because staff was earning more through unemployment than if they were working.
During the meeting, Fishbein also asked about holding an outdoor high school graduation ceremony.
Board of Education Chairwoman Karen Hlavac said the soonest the school board would consider making a decision on graduation is the week of June 8.
Public health, business interests weighed
This month saw a dramatic drop in new COVID-19 cases, said Stephen Civitelli, town health director, during the Town Council meeting.
From April to May, there has been a 50 percent drop in new cases at long-term care facilities and a 60 percent drop in the community.
“The peak was in April and as we’ve moved through May … we’ve seen some pretty dramatic drops in the number of cases here in town, so that’s good for us,” he said.
Civitelli co-signed a letter with Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. to Gov. Ned Lamont and state Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman dated May 20, the day hair salons and barbershops were supposed to reopen. Lamont pushed the date to June 1 a couple of days beforehand.
The letter said Wallingford businesses following the new guidelines shouldn’t have been prevented from reopening May 20.
“If the prime concern is health and safety, when that is satisfied, there is a need to permit businesses to provide their services,” the letter said.
Tim Ryan, town economic development coordinator, said during the meeting that “there are far too many unknowns to make any kind of a formal determination” yet on the effect the pandemic has had on Wallingford’s economy.
Ryan said the town has enjoyed annual business growth, replacing businesses that close with new ones. In five of the last six years, Wallingford had more than 50 new businesses start per year. The one year it didn’t hit 50, it was 48, he said.
He predicted that in 2021, however, the town will have fewer businesses than it currently has, never mind reaching 50 openings.
“I think we’d be lucky if we have a positive number at all,” he said.
Local economic factors
Significantly less demand for real estate means lower property values, reduced assessments and lower tax yield in town, he said.
“That should concern us all,” Ryan said. “I think there’s a lot of market signals working against us in the short run.”
He said local manufacturers are not likely to flourish, but have a strong base and will be OK since they’re more accustomed to large fluctuations in their business models.
Local retail won’t have a business-as-usual rebound. Route 5 now has several vacancies and more are expected, he said.
Hotels have been especially hard-hit due to travel restrictions, and the four national brand hotels on Route 68 near exit 15 of Interstate 91 are going to continue to struggle, he said.
Offices have been an ongoing challenge to fill in Wallingford.
About 40 years ago, demand for office space was high as businesses fled cities, he said, but the pendulum has been swinging in the other direction for several years, making the suburban office market extremely soft, “and COVID just dealt it a significant blow.”
Ryan added, however, that the recent increase in people working from home instead of offices may encourage people to move out of cities.
Other positive notes, he said, include the diversity in the tax base, by business type and category, is a “significant strength.”
He said that unemployment in town has dropped from 16 percent in mid-April to closer to 12 percent last week, according to state Department of Labor statistics. Unemployment was 4 percent before the pandemic began.