NEW BRITAIN – City officials confirmed in-person meetings will continue despite concerns raised by some residents following the rise in positive covid cases across the state.
Three members of the Common Council, however, are introducing a resolution to be discussed at a meeting later this month that might change that.
Several New Britain residents expressed concern to the city’s Common Council regarding covid safety procedures at city buildings and the desire to provide options that would allow residents and city officials to participate in meetings remotely. State officials announced Thursday the positivity rate was just over 13% for coronavirus infections. The past few weeks had seen positivity rates over 20%.
In a Jan. 12 Common Council meeting, resident Veronica DeLandro expressed concern that city meetings are being held in person and residents are no longer able to call in to participate. DeLandro said there should be additional precautions taken to ensure the safety of residents, while also ensuring that they retain access to their right to address the council.
“I feel that we are suppressing the voices of the residents by depriving them the opportunity to speak and that we are censoring the voices of those elected officials that are not able to be present,” said DeLandro, who was briefly in the race for mayor of New Britain, dropping out about three months before Election Night.
In an interview with the Herald, DeLandro said she urged the council to consider a return to the system used in 2020, in which residents could call in to participate in the public participation portion of the meeting. DeLandro said the council voted in August 2021 to change to in-person public participation.
She said returning to a virtual participation model would make sense considering the Omicron variant and the rising number of positive covid cases in New Britain and throughout the state.
“If you have a number of people who want to participate, it's a challenge. In winter months, we're in cold temperatures; we’re meeting indoors for long periods of time. To me, it's not safe to have so many people come in to participate.”
President Pro Tempore Alderman Robert Smedley told the Herald the city will not consider an option for remote public participation. Smedley said during the period of time when the city allowed for the public to participate through calling in, a majority of calls were “disingenuous” and came from people that were not residents of New Britain.
“We just don't have the proper technology to be able to do it properly with the right audio,” Smedley said. “It was very difficult to hear callers' comments and conduct business.”
Minority Leader Alderman Aram Ayalon said he was wary of how covid precautions are regarded among his colleagues on the council. In an interview with the Herald, Ayalon said he is in support of providing residents with the option to participate remotely, whether through online or phone communication.
“The less we put people in the public at risk the better,” Ayalon said. “In my case I’m 67 and yes I’m healthy but why put myself at risk right now, having to participate in person? Of course the public should be allowed to stay online.”
Ayalon said the switch to online would not only be beneficial to residents who want to participate in meetings but to council members and other city officials as well. He said another member of the council, Alderwoman Iris Sanchez, was not able to attend council meetings in person due to having an immunocompromised family member. Ayalon said he submitted a request to the Mayor’s Office to ask that a remote option be provided for Sanchez. The request was denied.
Ayalon said he was told “It’s just not how we do things” when he asked why his request was denied. Smedley told the Herald Sanchez is not the only person on the council with at risk family members at home. He said the council has been consistent with state guidelines regarding indoor gathering.
“There’s no reason that Alderwoman Sanchez can’t attend a council meeting that she was elected to attend and do business at because she goes to work every day,” Smedley said. “She leaves her house to go to the grocery store; she’s out doing things and other events.”
In addition to plexi-glass dividers, Smedley said council members are provided with N95 masks. He said mask wearing is encouraged but is the decision of each member. Ayalon said he wished more council members would wear masks during meetings but noted it is not a requirement of meetings. He believes the decision to not wear masks in public meetings and not allow residents to participate virtually is connected to political affiliation.
“It's politicizing the pandemic, which I think is reprehensible,” Ayalon said. “I think there is no reason to not allow representative Sanchez to participate online.”
The Common Council will discuss a resolution on Jan. 26 which would allow for remote participation for council meetings and subcommittee meetings as well as the public. The resolution states that due to the covid-19 pandemic and the omicron variant, council members want to ensure the safety of participants and maintain access for members and the public to engage. The resolution was submitted by Ayalon, Sanchez and Alderman Angel Segarra.
Meanwhile, DeLandro said she doesn’t understand how council members feel comfortable sitting in close proximity, without a mask, for long periods of time. She said, as a former clerk of committees, she understands how meetings can often run for hours long.
At the Jan. 12 meeting, DeLandro addressed council members who weren't wearing a mask during the meeting.
“I’m not only double vaccinated, I’m boosted and wearing a mask because there are people in here that are not wearing masks and that is uncomfortable for me,” DeLandro said.