NEW LONDON — Several boxes of blue disposable latex gloves and a bottle of hand sanitizer were placed prominently on a table that sat midway between the City Council and a few members of the public who attended the council meeting Monday night in the Congregate Room at the Senior Center.
That afternoon, Mayor Mike Passero had issued an executive order that outlined public meeting protocols for city departments, agencies, boards and commissions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We want all boards and commissions to continue functioning. That’s the heart of our city, that’s our community but we’re all to provide all commissioners with the ability to operate remotely if that’s what they desire,” he told the council.
Passero’s order stipulated that all public meetings will be held in the library at the senior center, a much smaller space adjacent to the Congregate Room. The room will be disinfected before and after meetings
Councilors and commissioners will be given the opportunity to participate remotely going forward. The public will have access to listen in via technology, but all public comments will be submitted beforehand and read into the public record.
“We are going to endeavor to keep public participation in our boards and commissions and our city council meeting as vigorous as it has been, albeit it won’t be in public,” Passero said.
Even though remote participation is recommended and will be supported by technology, meetings will not be closed to the public. “No one will be barred from entering the room,” he said.
New London City Hall will remain open with limited public access to the town clerk’s office and the probate court on the first floor for essential services only. All other city offices are conducting business by telephone and by appointment only when necessary. The back door is locked and the upper floors are excluded from public access.
“The goal is to continue to provide municipal services to the greatest extent possible. So, we don’t want to slow down our builders, we don’t want to slow down our developers, but we don’t want to put the community at further risk, so we are doing everything with an eye toward not having personal interaction,” he said. “Staff members who can continue to do their work remotely home have been given access to their city computers. As you can imagine, most of our city staff, like public works, fire, police, don’t have that option.”
Passero said the Senior Center is closed to the public but the staff is continuing to provide services to the senior population, including food and meal deliveries. He said the Board of Education started its “grab-and-go” program on Monday, which distributes food to school-age children who would normally receive meals at school. The leftover food from the school program is being sent to the seniors’ meal program, which the city wants to expand for isolated individuals in need, he said.
“We’re busy trying to identify what the needs are for that population,” he said. “We are also asking the general public, now is the time — do not interact with people in the high risk groups, but do check on them. Do help us make sure that no one falls through the cracks. It’s very important that we look after each other.”
Councilor Kevin Booker Jr. asked how the city could help cash-strapped families who were out of work with little or no notice as well as small businesses, especially restaurants, trying to stay afloat.
Passero said he was working with the state to find funding. He also reminded the council that restaurants do not have to shut down but they must operate differently.
“If people want to go to Muddy Waters for their morning coffee, they can still do that. But people can’t congregate there, that will be suspended,” he said. “Other restaurants can still provide meals but customers call it in and pick it up with very little social interaction,” he said.
Booker said that 30 percent of New London’s population lives below the poverty line and that the cornonavirus pandemic will only increase barriers to communication.
“People do not have access to computers, cannot afford public transportation. How are we planning to reach out to at-risk populations, people can’t leave their home. We need the city to take strategic steps,” he said.
Council President Efraín Dominguez Jr. said that 80 percent of families with school-age children in New London do not have internet access at home.
Passero said he was looking for a cash stimulus package for the city.
“These are all issues that are in the queue. We need some kind of arrangement for people without internet service,” he said. “I’m hoping the federal government will take the initiative. This public health crisis will quickly evolve into an economic crisis.”