Yale Daily News

For weeks, New Haven City Clerk Michael Smart’s office has been solidifying its preparations to handle the historic volume of absentee ballots this election cycle. But on Wednesday, some of these preparations were derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday morning, Smart announced that an election worker had tested positive for the virus. According to Director of Public Health Maritza Bond, the staffer began to display symptoms on the Thursday before the election, and had not returned to work since then. However, officials were unaware of the employee’s positive test result until the day of the election, sending Smart’s office into a scramble as ballots poured in. Bond said in a press release that 12 members of Smart’s staff will go through a 14-day quarantine as a result of being in contact with the staffer. She said the city clerk’s office was disinfected late Tuesday night, and has claimed there was no further risk to those in the office as they continue to fulfill their post-election responsibilities.

“Once we were informed that the individual tested positive, we immediately activated our contact tracing efforts in order to make sure that individual was isolated,” Bond told the News.

Bond said she had no information as to why the employee did not receive a positive test result until Election Day despite showing symptoms almost a week before. She also stressed that none of those in quarantine as a result of being in contact with the staffer have shown any symptoms of the virus. Bond said that for this reason, her office is not advising the quarantined individuals to get tested at this time as “it can yield a false negative result.”

The city clerk’s office is located at the Hall of Records at 200 Orange St. — which was a polling place for voters in Wards 1 and 7, as well as where absentee ballots are being processed and counted. When asked if she believed poll workers or the general public were put at risk due to this situation, Bond’s answer was clear: “Absolutely not.”

“[The positive individual] was not at the polls,” Bond said. “And there is actually not a single person that has had any symptoms at all, this is just out of an abundance of caution.”

Ward 7 Alder Abigail Roth was present at 200 Orange St. throughout the day, assisting voters and monitoring the polls. She said that she was not worried about being exposed, and also said she was not worried about any of the general public being affected by the case.

As a member of the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee, Roth has been helping to oversee election day COVID-19 preparations for months. She said their main focus had been on minimizing the risk to the public. Roth said she was not surprised that someone in the city clerk’s office had tested positive for the virus, given the current upward trend of the pandemic in New Haven.

“Unfortunately right now in Connecticut, the rates are rising,” Roth said. “But if you’re a contact of a contact, there is a very, very minimal risk that something would happen.”

The New Haven Independent reported on Wednesday that nine of the 12 quarantined individuals came from the city clerk’s office, with three others from different departments. At the beginning of October, the Board of Alders approved a $93,000 grant to increase the city clerk’s small staff before ballots came flooding in. After this outbreak, however, Smart’s staff is back down to six.

Smart did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but told the Independent he was not exposed and thus is not quarantined.

According to City Hall spokesperson Gage Frank, Smart reached out to Secretary of State Denise Merrill to request additional staff in order to finish the remainder of the Election Day work required of the office. The Independent reported that this request is being fulfilled. According to Frank, the work mostly consisted of data entries in the secretary of state’s election reporting system.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said he was grateful to the secretary of state for the assistance, and stressed the city would continue to do everything in its power to finish compiling results as soon as is feasible.

“[This aid] helps give us confidence that the situation is under control,” Elicker said. “It’s very important for us to make sure every vote is counted, and this helps take a little bit of the pressure off.”

According to the New Haven COVID-19 Hub, there have been 3,603 cases of the virus in the Elm City since the pandemic began.

Thomas Birmingham | thomas.birmingham@yale.edu