Norwalk Council President reflects on ‘big adjustment,’ urges ‘physical distancing’

Common Council President Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) attends a Committee meeting, December in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk City Hall closed to the public, suddenly and unexpectedly, on March 16 but Common Council members are being informed about activities as the coronavirus crisis spurs constant change, Council President Barbara Smyth said.

Smyth, Council President, also teaches Norwalk High School sophomores. Her three children are all young adults now. So how is she faring with the COVID-19 pandemic? What’s her opinion about City government under this crisis?

NancyOnNorwalk spoke to Smyth last week, seeking a check-in with City government. The interview ranged from her personal reactions to unfolding events and her thoughts on municipal machinations in response to the public health emergency.

“I’m trying to manage working from home along with my family and all of the issues that the city is facing,” she said, explaining that she has stuck to a routine, exercising and showering before going online to interact with her students.

“Just like all the other teachers, it just happened overnight. So that was a big adjustment, but the kids have been amazing. They are just so right there, they check in to their classes, they are doing their work.”

She’s learning every day about Google Classroom and other digital tools.

“I think everyone’s really rising to the occasion,” she said. Teachers are sharing their struggles with each other but, “They’re having a lot of positives…we’re in, this is uncharted territory, just all doing the best we can.”

Two of her grown children are living with her and everyone is working from home, so there’s the issue of managing that.


Constituents have questions

With the City, “Everything changed so quickly. It was changing daily. And then by the end of the week, it was changing hourly.  And so, you know, there have been a lot of a lot of phone calls and text messages, and constituents and other Council members calling me and, you know, having to get the information for them. So that’s been very challenging.”

Constituents have asked if the parks are closing, and about social distancing. Or, “is it safe to go grocery shopping? And how do I handle that?”

Is she being routinely updated on the decisions being made by City leaders?

Yes, she said.

“I feel like the city has done a really good job, with the Mayor establishing the daily announcements at the end of the day, with the update,” she said. “I think that the website is extremely helpful, and I have encouraged people to go to the website. And when other Council members have asked questions with some of their constituents, I always say send them to the website because that information is updated regularly. So, I do feel that the City has done a good job of informing the public. I do wonder, you know, what the accessibility is for people.”

As far as City Board and Commission meetings go, the City had to wait for Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders and then for the Norwalk legal department to interpret them, according to Smyth. They’re still working out how to manage meetings.


Dealing with a pandemic

Mayor Harry Rilling, Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King and Norwalk Director of Health Deanne D’Amore gave the Democratic caucus an update on what every City department is doing. This is going to continue weekly, according to Smyth.

Smyth said she called Republican Council member Tom Keegan, the sole non-Democrat, and relayed the update to him. Keegan said that’s true.

There’s also an emergency management team, Smyth said. It had been meeting monthly but now it’s weekly, and when the pandemic was declared, the team invited Smyth and Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) to attend. Now Keegan and Health and Public Safety Committee Chairman Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) attend.

Lamont issued an extension on municipal budget deadlines, and the Finance Department is working on it, she said.

The Council members are listening to the health experts and the Center for Disease Control.


‘It’s scary’

People need to heed the recommendations for social distancing, she said.

The Washington Post had an article Thursday recommending that distancing actually be referred to as “physical,” rather than “social,” and Smyth thought that was a good idea, she said. Since the article, Rilling’s updates use the phrase “physical distancing.”

“We need to stay away from each other,” Smyth said. “We need to be extremely careful when we are out in public. You know, if you go for a walk and you’re walking down the sidewalk, and you pass somebody, you don’t want to rub shoulders with them. You want six feet between you, you know, don’t gather. So, I think that’s what people really need. Because this is, you know, this is just the beginning.”

Just the beginning?

Yes, it’s scary, she said. “All you have to do is look at what happened in Europe…And look at what’s happening in New York City, or has happened in Westchester.”

“We Americans, we like our freedom…. We have to be smart. …It’s simple mathematics, it spreads exponentially, and that’s what we have to be aware of,” she said.

Coming down the pike is a combination of the Great Depression and the polio epidemic, she said. It feels like the Depression is “just around the corner” and “we’re living in a time for the history books…. This is unprecedented.”

In a text message, Smyth offered more thoughts:

“We have a responsibility to our fellow citizens, and it’s important we all make necessary sacrifices to put others first… We have to give up freedoms and activities that we’ve always taken for granted in order to limit interaction with others.  As employees, we’ve had to pack up our offices and classrooms and work from homes while balancing family needs at the same time, testing our patience and mental health.  As friends, we can no longer enjoy each other’s company, but we can still laugh together by connecting on Zoom or FaceTime. As we make these sacrifices for the greater good, please think of the people who’ve lost their jobs, businesses and restaurants that may not open again, and healthcare and essential workers who are bagging our groceries and prescriptions and risking their own health to meet our needs.  It’s crucial we all act in the interest of the public good, and my hope is that we will come through this difficult time being kinder to one another.”


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