NORWALK, Conn. — An attempt at an April Fools’ joke sparked a bit of backlash and confusion at City Hall after NancyonNorwalk published an article on Thursday titled, “Norwalk City Hall to remain closed to public until late 2022, at least.” The article cited fake quotes from Mayor Harry Rilling and City Hall staffers about some of the benefits of keeping City Hall shut until 2022.
Some members of the community, including Town Clerk Rick McQuaid, understood that the article was part of April 1st’s tradition, posting “APRIL FOOLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” in the comment section, but the article caused chaos, uncertainty, and some anger among City employees and members of the public, City officials said.
“The article this morning caused mass confusion,” Laoise King, the Mayor’s Chief Of Staff wrote in an email. “A global pandemic is not a joke … it’s very difficult to communicate about these precautions – particularly in a rapidly changing environment where guidance evolves and changes. Some of the recommendations may not be intuitive and we are constantly aiming to explain why precautions are necessary and to provide consistent and clear information. ‘Jokes’ like this – with no clear indication that it is a joke – just makes it harder to communicate public health information.”
Nancy Chapman, founder of NancyonNorwalk, said that she would clearly note April Fools’ Day stories in the future.
“I apologize for any inconvenience today’s story may have caused,” she wrote to Rilling. “In the future, if I decide to post an April Fools Day joke, I will remember to put asterisks in the headline.”
City staff received an email from Ray Burney, the director of personnel and labor relations to assure them that the article was supposed to be a joke.
“Today’s column in Nancy on Norwalk about when City Hall will reopen is an April Fool’s joke,” he wrote. “No decisions or announcements have been made by the Mayor regarding when City Hall will reopen to the public without appointment. When decisions about City Hall are made, you will receive an email from me or the Mayor’s office.
Rilling and King said that they were “inundated with calls, emails and text messages” on Thursday morning after the article was published. The article did not originally have any notes or markings to indicate that it was meant in jest.
“Needless to say, many of us recognized this as an April Fool’s Day joke,” Rilling wrote. “However, many did not. We are being inundated with emails and text messages from City Hall employees, Common Council members, and the general public.”
King said that the article caused a lot of emotions.
“Not only has this been a waste of time, it has caused fear, concern and anger among employees and residents,” she wrote. “We can take a joke – but this (is) not funny and borders on irresponsible. Please edit the article to indicate it is a joke as soon as possible.”
James Cahn, the author of most of the piece, said that local officials had created these conditions where people would believe it could be closed until late 2022.
“I pride myself on my jokes and pranks,” he said in a statement. “I think this one was of particularly high quality. Almost all of the rest of Connecticut has opened up, with precautions, to pre-Covid levels. Somehow, Norwalk’s City Hall is perfectly happy to stay mostly closed. Is it really not appropriate for us to poke a little fun at our public officials in Norwalk? Come on. If folks were calling City Hall, concerned, it’s because City Hall has created a manner of doing business such that the idea of it being closed for the next NINETEEN MONTHS seems vaguely believable. They might want to spend some time considering why this suggestion isn’t immediately identifiable as satire.”
He said, “I don’t recall reading that the CDC has suggested that while just about everything else could safely open, (with appropriate and necessary social distancing protocols), that municipal governments are somehow uniquely terrifying and dangerous. The rest of the world had mostly begun to get back to work. It’s time for Norwalk’s City Hall to go and do likewise.”
City Hall is currently open by appointment only along with two walk-up windows for the Tax Collector and for Customer Service, on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. No appointments are necessary to visit the windows. To make an appointment for other services, visit norwalkct.org/appointments.
King said that many of these measures will remain in place to make sure distance is maintained until at least more people have been vaccinated.
“While the governor has lifted some capacity limits, social distancing requirements are still in place, the city’s test positivity rate is still dangerously high, and new more contagious variants are circulating in our community,” King said. “It is important for city departments to schedule appointments so that we can do contact tracing and to ensure appropriate distancing can be maintained within the building. Hopefully as more people get vaccinated those requirements will no longer be necessary.”
Fran DiMeglio, chair of the city’s Planning Commission, wrote in the comment section that the article should have been clearly marked.
“This should have said April Fools Day Joke at the bottom in big letters from the beginning. It was irresponsible and in bad taste to publish it. It now makes one question the credibility of anything that is written here,” she wrote.
Another commenter, John Tobin, wrote that he fell for the article at first until he realized the date:
“I thought this article was real, until I realized today is April Fools Day! Good one Mr. Mayor! You had me right up until the $4 admission fee to enter City Hall. I should have known it was a fake article when it was mentioned that citizens are used to these ridiculous Zoom meetings. I’m glad to see the mayor and his staff have not lost their sense of humor, we all needed a good laugh.”
That paragraph about an admission fee was written by NancyOnNorwalk contributor Paul Lanning. He also wrote the lesser-noticed segment about a drive-in movie theater planned for a residential neighborhood.
Stuart Wells, the city’s Democratic Registrar of Voters, came up with his own April Fools’ joke in the comment section:
“The fall election for Mayor, Council, BOE, etc. will be conducted by voice vote this year. At noon on election day everyone voting for the Democratic candidates will make as much noise as possible. At 1:00 p.m. those voting for the Republican candidates will do the same. The volume of these two “votes” will be compared with special audio equipment recently purchased by the city, and the winners declared at 2:00 p.m. The equipment is capable of filtering out noises from non-citizens, under-age individuals, and out-of-towners, and uses voice recognition software to assign the voice vote to individual Norwalk voters. The equipment is expensive, but that cost is off-set by the money saved by not printing ballots and not hiring poll workers. Voters who will be working in New York at that time may hire a registered surrogate to voice-vote for them.”
NancyOnNorwalk wasn’t the only purveyor of fake news April Fools Day pranks. For example, according to Rex Marine, Kanye West is in negotiations to use Calf Pasture Beach for his “Sunday Service” while a Russian oligarch is in the middle of purchasing the Manresa Island property.