NORWALK, Conn. — Due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, Norwalk City Hall will remain closed to the public and most city workers will continue their “work from home” arrangements until at least November of 2022, Mayor Harry Rilling said Wednesday.
City Hall has been largely closed to the public since the beginning of the precautions taken in March of 2020 in response to the COVID19 pandemic and Rilling has seen it working well so he intends to keep in that way for the near future, he said.
“My first priority is for the safety of Norwalk’s residents and municipal employees,” he said. “No case of COVID in Norwalk has been traced to the public being allowed to freely come and go from City Hall and I intend to keep that trend going. I’d rather be too careful than to open up too early.”
Many of the services typically transacted by Norwalk residents are now available easily online. Communications Director Josh Morgan said, “We couldn’t have launched the new website at a better time. Norwalkers are used to having their meetings on Zoom and ordering their essentials from Amazon. It just makes sense that they’d want to keep their business with City Hall online, as well.”
“I really feel like we’re on the cutting edge of something big,” Morgan said. “In the future, all interactions with state and local governments will be moving to the cloud and e-commerce models. We’re ahead of the curve.”
Work from home arrangements are also a “win-win for everyone,” said Rilling. City staff seem to prefer working from home.
Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Ray Burney said, “Having most of the staff working from home has been great. They seem very productive and can organize their time better.”
Property assessors have been particularly successful in working from home, he said. The Tax Collector’s Office will now follow suit.
“When you do it all online, the folks in the Tax Collector’s Office can decide when they want to work on it depending on what else they have going on that day,” Burney said. “Everything gets taken care of, an email is sent out when it’s all done and everyone has a bit of breathing room. Work from home is easier for everyone and is great for morale.”
City Hall will remain selectively open by appointment only but as new systems come online and new employees are hired, the available appointments will be more limited. Some of the previously available appointment times will be used to give tours of Norwalk’s City Hall. City residents wishing to enter the building will be charged a “nominal” $4 admission fee, while non-residents will pay $7.50.
The fees, which will underwrite the cost of COVID-mandated sanitizing, will be collected at the entrance by former Calf Pasture Beach gate attendants.
Norwalk Arts Commission Chair, Mark Alan said, “We have some great art and displays in City Hall and people enjoy seeing the place where ‘the people’s work’ is done.” The Arts Commission hopes that the entry fees for City Hall tours can be used to help offset some of the operating revenue lost due to the Museum and the Mill Hill facilities being closed. No decision has been made yet about vaccine requirements for tours. “Everyone should get the vaccine as soon as possible,“ said Rilling, “I understand that some people might not want it but the most important thing is to keep public servants and volunteers safe. We can’t take chances.”
Keeping City Hall closed will also be a cost savings to taxpayers. Finance Director Henry Dachowitz said, “During COVID, the operational overhead at City Hall has decreased. When you have fewer people there, you don’t need to heat the building as much, you don’t need to keep the lights on. It’s no different from turning the thermostat down at home.”
City Hall may remain closed beyond November 2022 but there will be no plans to reopen it before that time. Asked for clarification on how the November 2022 date was decided, “That seems to be a time when we can be sure that everything will return to normal, if you look at the science,” said Rilling. He added, “We’re working really well, now, so if we need to extend the closure, it will be very easy.”
*Editor’s note, 1:20 p.m.: This is an April Fools Day joke. It’s not true.
In other municipal news
Norwalk’s Zoning Commission is scheduled to rule on whether residents of a quiet Broad River street will see construction of a drive-in movie theater at the end of their cul-de-sac in an AAA residential zone. The applicant, Chester Linzer of 19 Whipporwill Court, who hopes to erect the facility in his backyard, told NoN that he’ll be showing films “with Biblical connotations,” but declined to give specific examples.
“I know my rights,” he said. “The RFRA says that they can’t stop me,” an apparent reference to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which supersedes local zoning laws that would infringe upon an individual’s religious practices.
Neighbor Al Dunfey worries about the traffic. “They’ll be going back and forth right past my house,” he said. “What about my rights?” Linzer countered by saying that a recent traffic study predicted little or no impact on the street.
Linzer’s attorney Zoe Hartwell said that if the application is denied, Linzer “could rent his yard to contractors who would park trucks and store materials there.” When reminded that such activity would violate City zoning regulations, Hartwell laughed and said “Come on! This is Norwalk!”
Not all of Linzer’s neighbors disapprove. “I think it’s great! “ Marie Piedmont who lives at 8 Whipporwill said. “My husband and I so miss Friday nights at the old Norwalk Drive-In, where we’d neck and eat popcorn.”
A public hearing on the application is expected to be announced.
*This is also an April Fools Day joke.