Charlottesville may return to in-person government and public meetings, but how and how quickly are unclear.
City Council renewed its COVID-19 continuity of governance ordinance earlier this week but this time included a provision for in-person and hybrid meetings upon submission and approval of a safety plan.
“If City Council would like to physically assemble together for a specific meeting, this ordinance would delegate to the mayor the responsibility to work out with the city manager how that meeting would be managed in terms of COVID precautions,” said city attorney Lisa Robertson.
Those precautions could include the number of people allowed in the room and possible mask requirements.
Robertson said the mayor and City Council would have to develop a safety plan to submit to city staff. As of the council’s Monday meeting, no such plan had been developed, Robertson said.
Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers said he and staff are looking into options for a hybrid approach, including city-owned CitySpace as a potential venue that would allow for greater social distancing.
Rogers said he expects he and staff will have more information in about two weeks.
“We believe that we have the equipment and the staff, for the most part, to do a hybrid meeting either in City Council chambers or possibly also in CitySpace,” Robertson said. “But if we were to look at a different space altogether, such as using an auditorium in someone else’s building like the school, we don’t know whether or not we’d have the equipment that we need.”
Charlottesville is one of the last Virginia holdouts on going back to in-person meetings. The city School Board has held hybrid meetings since May 2021.
On March 2, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voiced support for returning to in-person meetings next month for the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission and School Board with an option for members of the public to still watch and speak virtually.
The board will formally vote whether to end the county’s local emergency related to COVID-19 at a meeting March 16.
The city spent almost $120,000 in CARES Act funding in 2021 to make audiovisual and other improvements to city meeting rooms, including improvements that would support hybrid meetings.
Councilor Michael Payne has been vocal in his support for a return to in-person meetings, arguing that it’s unclear why the city couldn’t meet in hybrid meetings in a socially distanced way when much of the world has loosened precautions.
“UVa has completely returned to in-person [classes] and loosened their mask mandate. I can walk into any restaurant or bar without a mask. From the purpose of preventing community spread, I’m not sure what we’re accomplishing by not moving to hybrid,” Payne said.
“I think [meeting virtually only] does have a meaningful impact on reducing some members of the public’s ability to participate, as well as our ability to be able to deliberate,” he said. “I know that there are challenges, but I do feel like they’re solvable.”
Payne also said the city had made a significant investment in the equipment purchased with CARES Act funding.
Mayor Lloyd Snook has consistently voiced caution in his approach to returning to in-person meetings.
“My overall attitude is that I would like to see us open as much as we reasonably can, with all reasonable safeguards available to folks who have different medical needs,” Snook said. “I don’t want to be so gung ho on getting back to everything happening in-person that we trample on the legitimate concerns of folks who have different medical concerns.”
During the meeting, Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the Blue Ridge Health District, shared her thoughts on how in-person meetings could be held safely. Her suggestions included requiring masks, socially distanced seating and a virtual option for people who are immunocompromised.
Bonds also said she strongly encourages Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask indoors due to the CDC’s current “high COVID-19 community level” designation in the area.
During Monday’s virtual meeting, Rogers, Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders, Deputy City Manager Ashley Marshall and Senior Budget Analyst Krisy Hammill all sat in the same room in City Hall. While the officials appeared to be seated with at least one chair’s worth of distance between each of them, only Marshall was wearing a mask.