NORWALK, Conn. — Mayor Harry Rilling and three of his administrative leaders addressed multiple Norwalk reopening challenges during his virtual town hall Monday.
Norwalk restaurateurs and retailers planning to open for outdoor business on Wednesday will benefit from a streamlined permit process, the leaders said.
Multiple departments will expedite the approval process via simultaneous “parallel reviews” by multiple departments. “Norwalk is the first in Fairfield County to be able to get online permitting up and running for outdoor dining and retail,” said Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey. “We opened the application window today at noon. We have over 20 applications already, five of which have approvals from all the departments and will be issued approvals tomorrow morning. We’ve been working closely with the mayor’s office as well as DPW, Police, Fire, Health and Legal to make this happen.”
Rilling said, “It’s just not as simple as putting a table outside. Permits are important to protect the public.”
The application and detailed information are at https://www.norwalkct.org/ 1929/COVID-19-Business- Resources.
Planning and Zoning Director Steve Kleppin said, “You need a permit from Planning and Zoning, plus an agreement filed with the Law Department to make sure that what you’re doing complies with all the city ordinances. We’ve merged the permit with the agreement into one document and it’s an online fillable form. There’s no fees associated with any of the outdoor dining or outdoor retail.”
“There’s a narrative required by the state, and the website tells you what you need to include,” Kleppin continued. “What we’ve seen so far is these are a paragraph or two. Basically, the state put out some guidance on what you have to do to operate your business and so we require you to submit that.”
“If you’re utilizing city property there is also an insurance certificate to make sure the City is indemnified and protected in case there’s some kind of accident or any kind of issue. There’s some requirements for the amount of coverage you need, naming the City as additional insured. If you’re on private property, the insurance is not a necessary document,” Kleppin said.
A site plan must also be submitted “to make sure that the plan meets all the governor’s requirements for separation distances as well as maintaining ADA access, safe routes out for fire code and so forth,” Kleppin further detailed. The site plan can be a basic sketch created by the applicant. An architect’s drawing is not necessary.
“We’re all doing it simultaneously to get the permits out as quickly as possible,” Kleppin said. “If you have questions or you’re wondering where your permits are, there’s information on who to contact. If you get stuck, I can get you the right person and get you an answer as quickly as possible.”
Rilling said, “If you have a parking lot at your restaurant you can use the parking lot (for dining). If you own a non-contiguous piece of property you can use that. You can also get authorization from somebody else who has a piece of property and use that to open your outdoor dining.”
“We can’t close Washington Street altogether because there’s a residential building in the middle of the block and they have a parking garage that the residents need access to,” Rilling said. “But we’re looking at the possibility of closing one lane of Washington Street and making the other lane one way so that we can expand the dining options for some of the Washington Street restaurants that only have a sidewalk to work with. We’re also looking to see if there are any other options for restaurants in other parts of town where we may be able to do the same thing. Washington Street lends itself to being able to do that more easily, but we’re looking.”
In last Wednesday’s Parking Authority meeting, Rilling said, “It would impact the Parking Authority if we were to use some of the parking spaces on Washington Street for tables,” presumably referring to potential lost parking meter revenue. When contacted by NancyOnNorwalk, Parking Authority Chairman Dick Brescia expressed a desire “to create an environment that will allow the restaurants to prosper. The Parking Authority is going to do what we can do to help them be successful.”
All Connecticut restaurants and retailers planning to open for outdoor business must display a state-issued badge obtained by undergoing the self-certification process at https://service-ct.force.com/ recovery/s/.
Webinar 3 p.m. Tuesday
Director of Business Development and Tourism Sabrina Church said, “We’re holding a webinar at 3 p.m. on Tuesday for business owners and members of the public interested in finding out more information with myself, Jessica, Steve and (Planning and Zoning staff member) Brian Baker. If you have questions on your application or if you have just general overview questions related to your business you can contact me at [email protected] My phone number is 203 939 2202. I’m available via text, call, or email at any time.”
Rilling’s other topics
Rilling had begun the meeting by announcing the opening of two new food distribution sites for age 18-and-under at West Rocks Middle School and Fox Run Elementary.
“Last week we held a food drive at Vets Park with the Connecticut Food Bank,” he said. “More than 39 tons of food was given away to more than 2,000 cars that passed through.”
He then addressed the beach reopening. “On Wednesday May 20th, vehicular access to Calf Pasture and Shady Beach will resume. Lots will be at 50 percent capacity. Residents will be permitted to park in the main lot which will be about 500 spaces. Non-residents must park at Taylor Farm, where there will be a maximum of 50 non-resident spots. There will be ticketing and towing of all non-residents who park in the main lot. Swimming will not be allowed this weekend, and amenities in the park such as the playground, splash pad, skate park, basketball court, volleyball court and the bocce court will not be available. The picnic tables will not be available. No grills will be available. We’re trying to minimize large gatherings.”
Casey’s answers to public questions:
Question: Are all restaurants allowed to offer outdoor dining?
Casey: “Yes, outdoor dining is allowed in any area in the City of Norwalk and we encourage people outside of the urban core to be practicing outdoor dining and outdoor retail. Regardless of what location you’re in we will accept the application, and everyone has an opportunity to participate.
Question: How many permits do you expect to get? Is every restaurant going to apply?
Casey: “We estimate that at least fifty restaurants are going to apply using the online permitting that we put together, and that’s just a conservative estimate.”
Question: What are other communities doing for dining? Do we expect a lot of out-of-towners coming into Norwalk?
Casey: “Other towns that we’ve talked to are doing similar things to what Norwalk has already done. I imagine that Norwalk might be a couple of days ahead just because we were able to post the application today at noon, but other cities and towns are not far behind and will be offering the same thing.”
Question: What does outdoor dining include for the bathrooms? Do they have their bathrooms closed?
Casey: “Restaurants should have their bathrooms open. They have been working on managing the bathrooms and putting tape on the floor to signify what 6 feet looks like so when customers use the bathroom, they’re doing it in a safe way. We know restaurants have been thinking about it. It’s not something that we’ve particularly asked them to manage but it’s something that business owners know that they need to manage.”
Church’s answers to public questions:
Question: What are the closing times for the restaurants?
Church: “Friday and Saturday are 11 p.m., and all the other days are 9 p.m.”
Question: Is the mall going to be open?
Church: “The mall will be opening at 11 a.m. on the 20th, with strict social distancing guidelines. They’ve removed the park-like furniture throughout the mall, and they’re trying to enforce the one person per family rule as well.”
Question: Are there any financial programs available for small businesses?
Church: “The PPP program is still available. We still have funds available left in that program. That’s the p-check protection program. So those businesses who may have not applied for it before can apply now.”
“Sole proprietor and single-owner businesses can now apply for unemployment, which you weren’t able to do before. The PPP loan and the other loan products that were made available apply to sole proprietors as well.”
“There’s also a small grant program through Hello Alice, with a maximum grant of $10,000 accessible from https://www.norwalkct.org/ 1929/COVID-19-Business- Resources. This is nationwide, so it’s pretty competitive.”
“The local banks in Norwalk would be happy to run you through the PPP program. I know there are a lot of applicants who have already applied and who have been waiting for responses”
Rilling’s answers to public questions:
Question: Do you think people will actually be going out to eat?
Rilling: “I think people are ready to move forward to some degree. Some people may not feel comfortable. If you’re a person who is in the high at-risk group, you probably want to stay home anyway.”
Question: Are there penalties if someone doesn’t get a permit or doesn’t have tables spaced six feet apart?
Rilling: “There are penalties. Citations could be issued. They could be closed down and lose their permit if I’m not mistaken. I believe they could be decertified and lose their permit and be closed.”
Question: Would the one-way on Washington Street be on one side, or down the middle to allow expansion for the businesses on both sides?
Rilling: “I don’t think we have the rendering yet. We’ve explored all possibilities. There’s a limited number of businesses on the north side of Washington St. We’re still looking at what the final design is going to be. It’s a possibility that restaurants on the north side of Washington Street without a restaurant on either side could get permission to expand their tables to the left and to the right.”
Question: Are food trucks allowed to be open?
Rilling: “Yes. I don’t think they’ve ever been shut. Food trucks have been able to operate throughout this entire time. They’re tantamount to a takeout restaurant.”
Question: What happened with the hair salons?
Rilling: “The opening of the hair salons will be pushed back to the first part of June. The governor speaking with some employees and salon owners felt that there are a lot of concerns that needed to be addressed and that they don’t feel that they were ready to open. They have a lot of things that they have to do within the salons”
Question: Who is going to monitor the beach over a holiday weekend?
Rilling: “We have an increased number of police officers that will be on duty. We also have Parks and Recreation staff. Lifeguards, seasonal employees will be hired to be parks ambassadors.”
Question: Is it possible that we’re going too fast? We will take one step forward and two steps back.
Rilling: “If you look around the country, there are other places opening much more rapidly than New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut. We certainly are going to monitor everything that we do, any restrictions that we relax, we will make sure that if we need to take that step backwards and close something down because we opened it too quickly, make no mistake about it-we will. We’re closely watching the states that have opened quickly to see if there is a spike in the number of cases.”
“We’re coordinating with the state’s reopen plan, with phases 1 2 3 and 4 until we get to a point where we feel comfortable. Each phase will depend on certain things occurring such as reduction in hospitalizations for fourteen days, fewer cases, fewer deaths and more testing that will be available.”
“We have more than 1,000 positive cases in Norwalk, and 115 of our citizens have lost their lives. We are slowly coming down from the peak that we had last month but we are far from out of the woods yet. We still need to remain vigilant.”