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With rise of delta variant, city meetings likely to remain virtual

With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, Charlottesville government offices are unlikely to be back to normal anytime soon.

Staffers are recommending that the City Council extend the city’s Continuity of Governance ordinance because of the spread the delta variant of COVID-19, City Manager Chip Boyles said during Monday’s council meeting. The current ordinance expires Oct. 19.

According to Boyles, the ordinance allows the local government to take action and put in place certain restrictions necessary to assure the continuity of government during a disaster or state of emergency.

Originally, Boyles planned to use his presentation Monday to recommend the City Council consider terminating the Continuity of Governance Ordinance on Sept. 7.

“Given recent Blue Ridge Health Department COVID case numbers, which are steadily increasing with a regional 90% delta variant presence and with national COVID positivity rates reaching their highest since December and January, staff is delaying this recommendation,” Boyles said.

“This was really a recommendation for how we could move forward when we think it’s appropriate to do so, but right now we’re still recommending that we remain conservative with our posture,” said Emily Pelliccia, deputy chief of operations for the Charlottesville Fire Department.

Pelliccia said positive cases are trending upwards with similar numbers to the fall and winter, prior to widespread vaccination.

“[There’s] 16 new cases on a seven-day average … So we’re seeing a lot more [cases] … much of that is the delta variant, which we know to be pretty virulent,” she said.

BRHD reported 30 new cases Sunday and 27 new cases Monday. For most of June and early July, BRHD was only reporting a handful of new cases per day. Some days, there were no new cases. Pelliccia said some of these cases were in children too young to be vaccinated.

“There’s positive kid cases, which we weren’t seeing as much [before],” Pelliccia said. “I think that’s got people really taking note and convincing them to get vaccinated.”

Pelliccia said 20% of last week’s cases were “breakthrough” cases, which means the patient was fully vaccinated when they contracted the virus.

The health district is holding a town hall update on COVID-19 at 1 p.m. Thursday on Zoom and the city’s Boxcast channel. Boyles said the BRHD’s director, Dr. Denise Bonds, will give a presentation during the Aug. 16 City Council meeting on the rise in cases.

Brain Wheeler, director of communications for the city, said staff is looking at using a hybrid model for some city meetings. Members of city boards and commissions would attend in person, while a virtual option would be available for members of the public. However, due to technical constraints, this may not be possible for all boards and commissions. Wheeler estimates the communications department could support up to six boards in a hybrid model.

“Right now, the way we do virtual meetings [on Zoom], it works really well because everyone has a camera and a microphone. Once you put all of you into a room, then the microphones and cameras become more labor intensive for us to make work really well for a broadcast,” Wheeler said. “So the reason we’re limiting the number of boards that we would recommend get this hybrid treatment is because of staffing issues, and also the number of rooms we have that can work really well.”

According to a proposal in Monday’s council agenda packet, the communications department would prioritize the four boards and commissions that have traditionally been televised for a hybrid model: the City Council, Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review and Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. The department could support two additional boards and commissions for the hybrid model.

“By targeting a subset of more prominent boards and commissions, we will set clear expectations about which meetings have Zoom availability for the public while the others return to an in-person-only format,” the proposal says. “Special events like town halls, public hearings and workshops could also include virtual participation options. Continued availability of Zoom would also support city employees who wish to participate in these meetings virtually.”

Boyles said his staff will provide more information to city councilors at their Aug. 16 work session so they can decide whether they would like to extend the Continuity of Governance ordinance past the Oct. 19 deadline or terminate it earlier. At Monday’s meeting, Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she has been having conversations with constituents about vaccination. She encouraged people to be patient when talking to others about the importance of getting the vaccine.

“When you’re talking about why people may be concerned [about getting vaccinated], the pointing of fingers is just not helpful. And we need to make sure that we are addressing the concerns people have adequately … getting them someone that they can trust, who is patient with them, to answer those questions,” Walker said.

Councilor Heather Hill pointed out that the vaccine is not approved for children under 12, who are still at risk.

“Every child under the age of 12 doesn’t have the option [to get vaccinated] and I have three of them in my house, and so the more people recognize that responsibility, I think the better,” she said.


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