Almost two week after the Board of Selectmen declared a local state of emergency, Old Lyme has yet to see a confirmed case of the coronavirus, but First Selectman Timothy Griswold said town staff, emergency personnel and volunteers need to move quickly to help residents who could be vulnerable amid state orders for people to social distance and businesses to close
Griswold said he’s particularly concerned about town businesses that could struggle, residents who could lose their job or lose hours, and seniors potentially feeling isolated.
“We’re obviously concerned about individuals who depend on their jobs to keep going,” Griswold said in a Thursday morning phone interview. “If their business has closed or their employer has had to lay them off, a $1,000 or $2,000 check [from the federal government] will help but it won’t carry you through an extended period of time for sure.”
Griswold and David Roberge, town director of emergency management, said that staff and volunteers are making direct calls to residents with higher needs.
“The senior population, the special needs population, the hospice population, the [Visiting Nurses Association]-registered population — We’re really focused on them: the people who can’t get out regularly,” Roberge said.
The Lymes’ Senior Center is currently closed to visitors, but the Estuary Council of Seniors continues to deliver Meals on Wheels and other food charities around southeastern Connecticut continue to offer prepared meals or groceries seven days a week. The towns of Lyme and Old Lyme have also launched a relief fund for residents in partnership with the Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau.
Michelle Noehren, the town’s senior manager of administration, is coordinating emergency communications for the virus. The town’s website contains information for residents on how to access town departments while town hall is mostly closed to visitors as well as connections to resources for school families, local restaurants still offering takeout, and opportunities to give or receive volunteer assistance.
“With this emergency, there’s a lot of fear and panic,” Noehren said. “People have been through hurricanes and storms before, but this is new and scary. So we’re being very thoughtful on how we’re saying things to hopefully bring calm and not intro fear.”
Residents can sign up for text alerts by texting OLCOVID19 to 888-777.
Government continues by telephone, teleconference, or with adapted hours
Town board meetings in Old Lyme have moved entirely to teleconference, with information on how to call into specific meetings available with the meeting agenda on the town’s website.
Town Hall is closed to visitors except under specific circumstances, and members of town staff have begun to work from home, Griswold said. In many cases, staff’s usual phone extensions have been set up to transfer to their home or mobile phones.
Gov. Ned Lamont has issued executive orders in recent weeks to suspend requirements that government board meetings be held in person, waive the requirement that town budgets be approved by voters at town meetings, and give towns a 30-day extension to finalize their budgets.
The Board of Finance is considering ways to hold a public hearing on the town budget over Comcast Channel 14, Griswold said.
“You’d want for people to be able to comment, but not in person,” Griswold said. He added that it’s very unlikely the budget will go to a town meeting vote this year. “It would be a stretch to think that a town meeting would be approved for the state of Connecticut as early as May… I would imagine that we’re looking at this new method of doing it this year. Hopefully, this will be the only year.”
Griswold added that it’s hard to predict how the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic downturn could affect Old Lyme’s finances.
“It’s a lot of the unknown that’s a nagging thing,” he said. “When we talk with the Board of Finance we say, ‘Are we going to see people who can’t pay taxes?’”
The Planning Commission has expressed some concern about meeting the state’s December deadline for updating Old Lyme’s Plan of Conservation and Development, Griswold said. The board is considering what actions they can take, which may include seeking an extension from the state.
“Take precautions seriously,” emergency director says
Griswold noted that the coronavirus emergency is very different from past natural disasters, usually winter storms or hurricanes, that Old Lyme has faced.
“With a storm it’s more finite, the warnings are early and you get people the message to batten down the hatches or leave,” Griswold said. “Then it hits. Then you’re in recovery mode, where it might have lingering effects for a while and property might be damaged. With this [coronavirus], it’s sort of more disquieting in a way because you don’t know how bad it will become or when it will become bad.”
Or, Noehren added, “When it will end.”
Roberge said that the virus makes for an “unseen” emergency. It hasn’t downed power lines or blocked roads, but it still presents a threat to human life.
“Take the precautions seriously,” he said. “Do social distancing. Do not congregate. Wash your hands. Practice personal hygiene. Take your temperature. If you’re coming in for the first time from an affected area, self-quarantine yourself for a while and monitor yourself to make sure you’re not bringing the virus with you.”
Griswold added that residents could help local businesses by buying meals when possible.
“And people, if they feel inclined, might patronize the local restaurants with takeout. It’s been a big help. I was down at Kokomo’s, and he said it’s a struggle but every meal that they can serve helps keep the lights on and they feel they’re doing something by hanging in there and serving the public.”
He added, “And when you go to the grocery store try to not buy more than you need. If you grab every item you see the next person won’t have it and it just magnifies the problem.”