Town Hall is open for business as usual, but the place is unusually quiet. As residents heed government warnings to stay at home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, town departments and facilities are adjusting to a new, and decidedly slower paced normal.
“There’s not much going on,” First Selectman Jim Zeoli reported. “Phones aren’t ringing, no one is coming in – people are really paying attention to the state’s guidelines.”
All town departments remain open and staff is reporting for work, but all town boards and commission meetings have been suspended and Case Memorial Library is closed. Several offices that have amped up activity are the Health Department and Community Services which are fielding more emails and calls from residents concerned about coronavirus. “Despite limited staffing in community services, our elderly services and outreach department is doing an excellent job of reaching out to our seniors that need help,” Zeoli said. “They continue to meet the needs of any residents that need assistance with transportation or access to food and/or medications.”
One pressing issue is the town’s budget which is typically being developed at this time of year and put to vote by May. “That’s most likely going to be postponed,” Zeoli said. Instead of the budget being voted upon at a town meeting, it will probably be approved by the town’s selectmen and finance boards. Zeoli isn’t sure yet whether residents’ tax payments will be put off. “We can’t have any discussion about tax bills until the budget is done,” he said.
Orange is faring better than many towns and cities with six reported cases of the virus being reported as of press time. Director of Health Dr. Amir Mohammad expects that number will increase as more people are tested.
Dr. Mohammad stresses the importance of following the recommended Center of Disease Control guidelines to practice good hygiene, maintain social distance, to stay home except to purchase essentials like food and medications and postpone any elective medical procedures. He also recommends residents call their medical providers to secure three months of medication during this pandemic. “The virus is in the community, that’s how it’s spread so the public needs to minimize any exposure,” he said. “It is very inconvenient for all but it should be time limited. Let’s keep our hopes high and keep praying that we overcome this situation. Rather to be inconvenienced than to compromise safety.” He also advised that you should be checking in regularly with senior parents and neighbors and staying sensitive to their needs.
Mohammad is in daily contact with public health officials from surrounding towns as well as the town’s emergency management team that includes representatives from the town’s police, fire, school and emergency response team. “The state did a remarkable job listening to local health directors and being proactive,” he said. “We have a strong team of directors around the state who communicate and share ideas constantly and we are able to play a key role in getting information to the public in a timely manner.”
This is not the first time Mohammad has been on the frontlines of an infectious disease outbreak. He was in medical training in the mid 2000s during the Ebola and Swine Flu epidemics. “The coronavirus is unfolding on a much larger scale and no one in my generation has seen something like this,” he said. “We are all learning but hopefully this is a once in a lifetime event and we won’t have to face it again.” For the moment he urges “caution, not panic.” “When you are panicked you don’t think coherently. Follow the directions and guidelines of the experts and don’t do something they’ve advised against,” he said.
At Maplewood Senior Living, where outside visitors are restricted to medical and caregiving personnel, staff is using technology to keep families and residents connected. Using video apps like FaceTime and Skype, residents are able to share “virtual meals” with loved ones who are no longer permitted to visit. According to Executive Director Liz Castilline-Gannon, while all group and communal activities are currently curtailed, technology is being used to offer online exercise and meditation classes, a variety of courses and lectures, and museum tours. If residents are outside of their own rooms, they are practicing strict social distancing. Along with delivering care packages to their loved ones, residents’ families have also been reaching out to the Maplewood staff, sending letters of gratitude and even dropping off food. “It’s been really inspiring the way families are demonstrating their appreciation and support for all we are doing to keep their loved ones safe during this difficult time,” Castilline-Gannon said. “The residents’ seem to be in high spirits and making the best of it just as the rest of the world is.”
While the Orange Police Department is quieter than usual with decreased motor vehicle accidents, DUI stops, and retail-related crime like larceny and shoplifting, medical calls are on the upswing. Though, so far, Orange has been spared, Assistant Police Chief Max Martens noted there’s been a handful of bank robberies and convenience store hold-ups in surrounding towns that could be attributed indirectly to these unusual times. “It’s sad because before this coronavirus, a person wearing a surgical mask into an establishment would have looked suspicious, and someone might have reported it, but now it is the norm. So when a criminal wears a mask at night and walks into a convenience store, no one thinks twice,” he said.
There have been a few silver linings to the pandemic. Martens points out more people are outside walking dogs and the town’s tracts of open space have been busy with people enjoying the weather. “I saw people outside at Racebrook School playing Frisbee and it’s nice to see people are going along with social distancing,” he said. At headquarters, police have taken to doing roll call outside. “It’s a good way to keep a distance apart while relaying information,” he said. “Little changes are happening as we adapt to this day-to-day.” He points out it’s a good time to handle projects that have been put off, like car and home repairs and to keep local small businesses in mind during these hard times. “We’ve been trying to order take-out from local restaurants like Chip’s and Mr. Kold Kuts,” he said.
The department has also experienced random acts of kindness and much appreciated gifts of food, gloves, masks and even hand sanitizers from local residents, nail salons and other businesses. Litchfield Distillery, better known for making bourbon, vodka and gin are now manufacturing hand sanitizer. The company donated two gallons of its new product to the Orange Police Department.
“With bad times come these little happenings where people get along and you feel good about humanity,” Martens said. “Unfortunately it takes little tragedies for people to start helping each other but it brings a smile to my face and it makes me happy.”
By Laura Fantarella – Orange Town News Correspondent