With phase two of the state’s reopening underway and July 1st property tax bills ready, town halls throughout the state have differing approaches to opening their doors to the general public and returning to business as usual.
Some are fully open, upholding social distancing practices, requiring masks and limiting the number of people allowed in. Others are open only by appointment. Some municipalities are doing business in the parking lots or only at the entrance of the town hall buildings, and still others are open only online.
Essex Town Hall reopened on June 22, and First Selectman Norman Needleman said things are going well so far. The building has a designated one-way entrance and exit, several hand sanitizer stations, limited elevator capacity and a reduced number of people allowed into the building at one time.
“We have someone stationed at the main entrance, screening people as they enter the building and radioing ahead to each department if someone is coming up to see them,” explained Needleman.
Essex formed a committee to decide when the town hall should be opened.
“Opening the town hall is something that the committee discussed and decided on and everyone felt comfortable with,” said Needleman.
In other towns such as Ansonia, the town hall is open only by appointment. Ansonia intends to open the building to the public once again in mid- to late July, to coincide with the scheduled phase three reopening of the state.
Derby’s town hall is also not fully open to the public yet. According to Marc Garofalo, who is the town clerk and vice president of the New Haven County Town Clerks Association, every town hall is different in its ability to open safely. He pointed out that a number of Connecticut’s town halls are historic buildings, which adds difficulty in upgrading safety measures such as Plexiglas barriers and social distancing opportunities. The Derby town hall is making necessary physical improvements to the building to make it safe to open, but these improvements include cutting into some of the walls and rerouting electrical wiring.
“Our town hall is an old bank building, so we are installing more teller windows and barriers to increase the physical safety of our workers,” said Garofalo who is looking on the bright side of things. He said the pandemic has provided the opportunity to evaluate how much town halls can do online to better serve the taxpayers and the public.
Municipal governments statewide worked to ramp up online services early in the pandemic, automating as much as possible and taking functions ranging from tax payments to dog licensing online.
Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST) said that residents from various communities have said they appreciate the opportunity to attend town meetings and comment via Zoom.
“For the most part people have been very understanding about the need for social distancing at town halls,” Gara said.
Anna Posniak, president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, works at Windsor Town Hall, which reopened on June 8 with many safety precautions.
“We have gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, Plexiglas and necessary PPE to help keep the public and our workers healthy,” said Posniak.
“In addition to being open to the public, Windsor Town Hall also has a tax drop-off for residents who do not feel comfortable coming into the building,” said Posniak.
“This pandemic has been a marathon and every day there is something new,” said Needleman. “I think opening now is the right time. The next steps are ongoing.”
Other town halls such as Andover, Ashford, West Hartford and West Haven remain closed with no reopening date set. Town halls in Avon, Bristol, Chester and Deep River reopen on Monday. Greenwich and Westbrook town halls are open by appointment only; Wethersfield is open to the public for limited hours and Old Saybrook and New Britain City Hall are open to the public.
Meanwhile, East Hartford is looking to reopen after Labor Day.
Residents are advised to call their town hall for details on its opening status.