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Our Town with William Kelly: Town board meetings to be virtual to discourage Omicron spread

Responding to the spike in Covid-19 cases driven by the surge of the omicron variant, the Town Council decided Monday that town board meetings will be held virtually for the next five weeks.

The public will be able to participate in the meetings electronically through a Zoom link.

Meetings of the town’s quasi-judicial and advisory boards, and of the council’s ad hoc committees, will be conducted in an entirely electronic format, Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar said.

The council will hold its Jan. 11 and 12 meetings in the meeting chambers at Town Hall. But public participation at those meetings will be through Zoom only.

The decision is in effect until the Feb. 8 council meeting, when the panel expects to revisit the issue.

The council determined that, because of the surge in numbers of people who are getting sick with Covid, it is not currently safe to hold public gatherings at Town Hall.

Projections call for the wave of omicron cases to peak statewide in mid-February, though it may crest in Palm Beach County sooner than that, Council President Margaret Zeidman said.

“We have a huge positivity rate here in the county – 30 percent as of last Friday,” Zeidman said.

Monday’s decision occurred under a local declaration of emergency made by Police Chief Nicholas Caristo and unanimously affirmed by the council. The emergency declaration is in effect until the Jan. 11 council meeting, when the council will consider extending it until its Feb. 8 meeting, Boodheshwar said.

Applicants with a development review before the council, or the Architectural or Landmarks Preservation commissions, may request deferral to a future meeting if they prefer to have their applications reviewed with in-person public participation, the council said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday reported more than 75,900 new cases of COVID-19 in Florida. The new single-day record pushed the seven-day average daily to 42,600.

Zeidman said the high positivity rate does not include people who are taking the Covid-19 tests at home. Those statistics are not reported to the Florida Department of Health.

The number of hospitalizations is increasing, though nowhere near the levels seen with the Delta and other variants, Zeidman said.

“You have a variant that is extremely contagious, but maybe not as virulent in making you sick,” Zeidman said of omicron. People are typically sick for two or three days with omicron, she said.

The temporary ban on public gatherings applies only to town property, and not to private properties.

“We will not be issuing curfews, closing beaches or telling restaurants what to do,” Zeidman said. “That [decision] is on them.”

The council’s Business and Administration Committee meets on Jan. 13; the Planning and Zoning Commission on Jan. 18; the landmarks commission on Jan. 19; the Strategic Planning Board and Code Enforcement board both on Jan. 20; and the Architectural Commission on Jan. 26.

All meetings start at 9:30 a.m. with the exception of the code board, which begins at 2 p.m., and the Architectural Commission, at 9 a.m.

Town Hall offices, the Police Department lobby and recreational facilities remain open, but mask wearing and social distancing is required while indoors.