Our Town with William Kelly: August 4, 2021

William Kelly  |  Public Safety  |  August 4, 2021

Summer Covid surge prompts revival of virtual government board meetings

The Town Council and other town boards will revert to electronic instead of in-person meetings during August because of health concerns amid this summer’s resurgence of Covid cases, town officials said.

Public participation in the meetings will be solely through Zoom, accessible through a link on the town’s website.

To comply with state open meetings law, a quorum – meaning at least three of the five council members – will be at Town Hall for Tuesday’s council meeting, which begins at 9:30 a.m., Mayor Danielle Moore said.

But, to minimize chances of the virus spreading, the quorum will interact electronically and will “not necessarily” be in the meeting chambers together, Town Attorney John Randolph said.

A quorum also will be required at Town Hall for the electronic meetings of three other “decision-making” boards during August, Council President Margaret Zeidman said. Those are the Code Enforcement Board and the Landmarks Preservation and Architectural commissions.

The Retirement Board of Trustees will meet electronically Aug. 20 without a quorum. That board has decision-making authority, but its chairman, Dan Stanton, told Zeidman it will not make any decisions at that meeting, Zeidman said.

The remaining town boards and two-member council committees, all of which are advisory, will be allowed to hold their public meetings electronically without a quorum, she said.

Moore said elected officials and town staff are doing all they can to keep residents and board members safe during a wave of Covid infections and hospitalizations tied to the delta variant outbreak.

“In consultation with staff, the town attorney and President Zeidman, it was agreed that this was the safest move to make,” Moore said. “The spike in the Covid-19 rate for Palm Beach County and the nation raises great concerns.”

Zeidman said she hopes the wave of new infections will subside by September so that in-person meetings can resume that month.

According to the Florida Department of Health, 110,724 new cases were reported statewide from July 23 to July 29, compared with 73,166 new cases the week before.

The July 30 weekly report from the state health department indicated an 18.1 percent testing positivity rate for the state and 15.5 percent rate for the county. That was a significant climb from the week before, when the rate was 15.1 and 12.5 percent for the state and county, respectively.

Those rates are in stark contrast to the period from May 5 to June 30, when rates were consistently below 5 percent.

“Things have changed abruptly,” Zeidman said. “We now have a 15 percent positivity rate. Even more disturbing is that people who are vaccinated are getting sick. They are getting the delta variant.”

In May, with infection and death rates falling, the council required town boards with decision-making authority to return to the meeting chambers at Town Hall with at least a quorum of four members present. The council approved a “hybrid” approach that allowed some board members to continue to participate electronically if they did not feel safe in the meeting chambers.

Zeidman said she sent a letter to Randolph on Saturday outlining the reasons why all town boards should temporarily revert to virtual meetings even though, according to Zeidman, all of the members are vaccinated.

“Two things have been found out in the last week: vaccinated people can get [the delta variant] and they can transmit it to those who are not vaccinated,” she said.

The delta variant has an incubation period of around four days making people contagious about two days sooner than they would be with the original variant. Some of the infected have mild symptoms and or none and can spread the virus without realizing it, Zeidman said.

“We have [elected officials or board members] with children or grandchildren under 12 [years old] and they can’t be vaccinated,” she said. “They can get it. There is an increase in children being hospitalized. We want to avoid that.”

Fully electronic meetings of government boards have been in apparent contradiction with state law since Nov. 1, when Gov. Ron DeSantis ended his emergency declaration allowing government bodies to convene electronically instead of by physical quorum, as state law normally requires.

The town’s boards and committees had been meeting virtually since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered government offices, schools and businesses.
The council resumed in person-meetings from October to December, then moved back to virtual gatherings amid a spike in cases before resuming in-person meetings in March.
In May, it required the four decision-making boards to resume in-person public meetings after Randolph said the boards’ decisions could be legally challenged on grounds that they were not complying with the governors’ order.

Randolph said Tuesday he continues to recommend that the council and other decision-making boards have a quorum present each time they meet. But he said a council policy intended to prevent physical interaction between board members, town employees and residents is “entirely appropriate under the circumstances … the health and welfare of the electorate and of the council and commission members is of paramount importance.”

The governor’s order continues to be a concern, he said. “My cautionary statement would be that, in light of the governor’s order, there could be some challenges to this, but we should deal with those challenges on a case-by-case basis.”

Zeidman noted that many residents, including members of the boards and commissions, are out of town during the summer.

In a letter this week to members of the code board and architectural and landmarks commissions, she said she would recommend that the council not expect them to travel back to town for their board meetings.

“Most of you travel by air and there is no [social] distancing that can be achieved on a commercial flight,” she wrote. “The recommendation will include that your meetings be held virtually provided that a quorum is present in Town Hall.”

At a special meeting on July 27, the council reinstated a previous requirement that face masks be worn, and social distancing practiced, at Town Hall, the Police Station, Mandel Recreation Center, and other town-owned buildings. The mandate applies to everyone regardless of their vaccination status.

 

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