Local governments and the school board are preparing to resume in-person meetings in June, some starting next week, but with varying degrees of limitations and requirements–from distancing rules to attendance limits to mask requirements.
The Flagler County Commission is holding its first in-person meeting starting at 9 a.m. Monday, at the Government Services Building. The school board is holding its Tuesday workshop in person. The Flagler Beach City Commission holds its next meeting, on June 11, in person. The Palm Coast and Bunnell city commissions are likely heading that way, but their plans haven’t yet been devised.
The Palm Coast council is holding another virtual meeting next Tuesday, and Bunnell’s commission doesn’t meet again until June 9, a meeting still scheduled virtually for now.
The county commission meeting will be limited to the commissioners, the county administrator, the county attorney and perhaps one or two staffers. The public may participate only in writing, as it has since the commission stopped in-person meetings in March, in compliance with safety guidelines imposed by the coronavirus emergency. But the commission intends to relax rules with each successive meeting.
“We’ll phase it in, a little more each meeting,” County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said. He said the governor may by next week push the state to Phase Two, which would allow for up to 50 people to gather in a given area. That would open the GSB chambers to a public presence. Except on rare occasions when certain agenda items draw controversy, commission meetings seldom draw more than handfuls of people, with staffers usually outnumbering spectators. But once the public is allowed in, Sullivan said, masks will likely be a requirement. “I suspect, based on Bob Snyder, that we would mandate masks. That would be my call,” Sullivan said, referring to the director of Flagler’s health department.
“There’s no one in the hospital right now suffering from Covid-19, I think that’s significant,” Sullivan said, citing indicators that make reopening possible. “It could change tomorrow. And we’re having a very low rate of positive on the testing we’re doing right now.”
In-person government meetings were never prohibited. They continued in some counties, though the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control was for electronic meetings, which the state allowed. The Flagler County Commission, Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and the school board all held their meetings through Zoom, broadcasting them live on YouTube. Public comment was limited to written emails that a clerk would read during the meetings. Few electronic glitches interfered, but commissioners were almost always blind to visual cues that often contribute to the tenor of discussions, something only in-person meetings accommodates. They have also delayed hearing several issues so as not to deny the public a chance to be heard in person.
Flagler Beach City Commission members discussed in-person meetings during their Zoom meeting Thursday evening, with Mayor Linda Provencher broaching the subject. All agreed to hold their next meeting, on June 11, in person.
“I’d love to get back to having the public involved and looking each other in the eyes, saying what we think and what we feel,” Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said.
But not so fast: based on plans devised by Matt Doughney, the police chief, the commissioners would take their seats on the dais, at six feet’s distance from each other, the city manager and the city attorney would sit separately from each other rather than at the same table they’ve always shared, and the public would have to watch the meeting either online or from outside the chamber, through a television screen. The number of people inside would be limited to nine. The city clerk is prepared to bring in members of the public, one by one, to address the commission during public comment segments. Individuals would be required to hand-sanitize before each appearance. The speaking platform would be sanitized after each person has spoken.
“Or, if you allowed more than nine, I could also remove some of the chairs and space them apart, and you could have more than nine people in the room, but they would be at 6-foot distance,” Penny Overstreet, the clerk, said.
In that case, Doughney said, the 10-person limit may not apply. “As long as they’re spread out on the dais and in the audience I don’t think it would be an issue, based on the size of City Hall. But I can make sure we get the guidance of our local health department,” Doughney said.
City Attorney Drew Smith cautioned: He cited a news story in Volusia where a local government had commissioners live, the public was virtual, but members of the public arrived at the chambers and were locked out. “It generated a news story,” Smith said. “That’s not to say the jurisdiction was doing anything wrong, but it could generate a news story because people, when they’re locked out of a commission meeting, that raises red flags for folks, and it certainly makes for news stories.”
Jane Mealy, who chairs the city commission, raised the ever-delicate matter of masks: “Are we allowed to mandate them? I knew that was not an easy one,” she said.
“No, it’s not an easy one, because it’s being debated at a national level right now,” Smith said. “I think yes, we do. We could make it part of our rules of procedure, and I think we do have the authority to do that.”
“I’d feel a whole lot more comfortable if we could mandate it,” Mealy said. The commission will make masks available for those who don’t have one. “Staff has a job getting City Hall ready for this.”
School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said the details are still in flux. The school board is meeting for an agenda workshop Tuesday afternoon. Those meetings also generally draw few, if any, spectators, with staffers almost always outnumbering members of the public. But the number of people in the room will be limited to under 10 or under 50 depending on an expected announcement by Gov. Ron DeSantis next week. “Either way we’re going live,” Gavin said. “It may be limited to 10 people, but our hope is that we’ll be able to have up to 50 people in the room.” Gavin compared the new arrangement to the 50-percent capacity rule in restaurants: the same thing would apply in meeting rooms, with alternate sitting spaces blocked out, though a family could sit together regardless.
And masks? “I’m not going to require masks if you can social distance,” Gavin said. “Masks would be required if you intend to get beyond social distancing.”
In Bunnell, Vice Mayor John Rogers said today, “it’s got to happen pretty soon, I’d like to be doing it.” But he expects public access to be limited at first. “We need to discuss it at the next meeting.” Bunnell’s commissioners have participated in their meetings through Zoom, from home, with Mayor Catherine Robinson anchoring from the commission chamber, with city staff present, an approach similar to Palm Coast’s, where Mayor Milissa Holland has also anchored weekly informational meetings on the Covid-19 emergency, from the dais at City Hall.
“Depending on the reopening phase we’re in from the governor,” Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton said Friday afternoon, “there could be elements of masks required, temperature checks and spaced seating indoors. We will continue to follow guidance from governors reopening task force and CDC recommendations.”
Bunnell City Manager Alvin Jackson echoed Morton. “The next meeting we will have that discussion because we still have not opened up to the public as of yet,” Jackson said.