Governor Andrew Cuomo, last week, extended the executive order that allows City Council meetings to be closed to the public, an order that has been in effect since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. While council members have been meeting via Zoom videoconference, some appear ready to welcome back the general public.
“I am Zoomed out,” said Mayor Torrance Harvey. “I would like to have the public present.”
The mayor suggested that the council could start welcoming the general public back as early as next month, provided the capacity is limited to 50 percent and the participants - council members and spectators alike - follow proper social distancing guidelines. During the summer, the council normally only has one meeting and one work session per month, but in September, it will go back to its normal twice-a-month schedule.
Councilman Robert Sklarz warned that the council chamber in City Hall, with a limit of 50 percent capacity, would not be large enough to hold in person meetings. He suggested a larger venue like the Newburgh Armory United Center which allowed for greater social distancing. Sklarz favors continuing virtual meetings for the foreseeable future.
Councilman Omari Shakur, like the mayor, said he was also Zoomed out.
“Our city workers are working every day,” Shakur said. “We can’t do two meetings a month?”
Councilwoman Patty Sofokles said the capacity of the council chamber is 99 people. Add the council members, city manager, corporation counsel and a few other city employees who regularly attend, and with social distancing guidelines, that leaves room for only about 20 people.
“The council chambers are too confining,” said Councilwoman Karen Meija, “Out of respect for health care workers and everybody else, there are guidlelines that we have to meet.”
Meija suggested a hybrid solution: open the council meetings up to the public, but also continue to televise them via Zoom and livestream on the city’s website.
“If we can think of holding the council meeting somewhere else where we can open the windows and get some fresh air,” said Councilwoman Ramona Monteverde, “I might consider it.”
“The city is capable of looking at this option,” Harvey said. “It’s hard to maintain focus in front of a computer screen. There is a real thing known as cyber fatigue. I don’t know how we are going to proceed but I am interested in getting back into the council chamber.”
With the council evenly split on how to move forward, City Manager Joe Donat offered to check with the city’s IT person to see if a hybrid solution that offered remote access to the council chamber was even feasible.
Residents are urged to stay tuned.