With COVID-19 cases in the area declining from their all-time high in January, Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission and School Board will resume in-person meetings in April.
On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors supported returning to in-person meetings — with an option for members of the public to still watch and speak virtually — next month for the three bodies and ending the county’s local emergency related to COVID-19.
The board will formally vote March 16 whether to end the local emergency that has been in place for nearly two years, which would become effective April 4.
“The local emergency has allowed the county a number of advantages in addressing timely issues related to mitigating the spread of the COVID virus during the emergency,” Deputy County Executive Doug Walker said. “We now believe that those advantages no longer are needed and that we are in the process of returning to a more normal operation.”
Albemarle will be one of the last localities in the region to lift its local emergency from 2020 and resume in-person meetings. In the county and Charlottesville, only the Charlottesville School Board has regularly resumed in-person meetings.
The first Board of Supervisors in-person meeting will be April 6.
The county will still operate under its continuity of government ordinance for a year “to allow transition,” which lets other boards, committees and commissions to still hold fully virtual meetings, Walker said.
Walker said there will be future decisions needed about bringing the other public bodies back to the required in-person status.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask guidelines last week, recommending that those in areas with a high rate of transmission should continue to wear a mask indoors while in public settings. Albemarle and Charlottesville, where the McIntire Road County Office building is located and meetings of the three elected bodies are typically held, fall into that category.
Rate of community transmission is determined by looking at new COVID-related hospital admissions over the previous week, the percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period.
For counties in the medium level, the CDC recommends talking to a doctor about mask use if a person is at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Assistant County Executive Trevor Henry said masking is still required in the County Office Building and would be during meetings, but county staff will continue to monitor CDC and Department of Labor and Industry guidance on a weekly basis as our if and when our areas change and
“What we’re looking at is a two week being steady state of either before we would make any recommendation to change our building posture related to masking,” he said.
Under the current guidelines, seating in half of Lane Auditorium will have distanced seats with six feet between them, while the other half will be fully open. There will be about 200 seats available without opening the upper deck.
“We are suggesting that when a board member would speak or someone from the public is coming to the podium, they would remove their masks to be able to best be heard by the audience in the room and by the colleagues around the dais,” Henry said.
The county will also have two or three police officers at the meetings, which was typically the case for Board of Supervisors and School Board meetings prior to the pandemic, as well as other staff in the room to help with meeting logistics.
If community members do not want to attend in-person, they will be able to watch the meetings and speak during public comment over Zoom or the county website.
Eventually, the county will decide when to bring back other boards, committees and commissions.
A group that the county is calling “Tier Two,” which would include authorities such as the the Broadband Authority, and the Architectural Review Board would come back no earlier than June, according to the presentation. Tier Two boards would have members resume in-person, with optional virtual access for attendees.
“The public will be able to choose to attend in-person or virtually, but the production quality of ‘virtual access’ [is lower] versus the Board, Planning Commission and School Board ‘hybrid meeting’ — it will be a fixed camera in the room,” county spokesperson Emily Kilroy said.
Some local government affiliated boards have started meeting in-person again, such as the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau. Despite being advertised as a virtual meeting, the tourism bureau held an in-person meeting for executive board members and staff only on Monday. Members of the public were not allowed to attend in-person.
During public comment at that meeting, CACVB Executive Director Courtney Cacatian had to repeat every phrase from the lone virtual public speaker, as in-person board members could not hear him.
“The CACVB made the meeting available to the public and the media through virtual streaming to balance the needs of public health and engagement,” Cacatian said in a statement after the meeting. “Hybrid meetings are a learning process, and we look forward to the return of full in-person meetings as soon as COVID allows.”
Under current state law, public bodies have to have a quorum in person, except for under certain circumstances.
If the public body has adopted a written policy, the state law allows a member of that body to attend 25% of meetings or two meetings per year, whichever is greater, through electronic communications if they have a temporary or permanent disability, other medical condition or if they are caring for a family member with a medical condition that prevents them from attending in person.
The Board of Supervisors’ Rules of Procedures has a remote electronic participation section that allows members to participate remotely under the state law, and the School Board also has a policy that follows the law. The Planning Commission’s Rules of Procedures does not have a remote electronic participation section.
But the law could change later this year. There is still a bill in the General Assembly that would allow boards, commissions and committees to meet fully virtually a limited number of times per year.
HB 444, filed by Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker D-Alexandria, would allow all public bodies to convene all-virtual public meetings two times per calendar year, or for 25% of the meetings held per calendar year, whichever is greater.
The bill passed the house and was reported out of a senate committee on Wednesday with some changes
Another bill, HB722, which would have allowed meetings of local public bodies that serve solely in an advisory capacity to hold electronic meetings, was left in committee.