The Kingston Common Council will return to in-person meetings less than two months after briefly resuming virtual meetings in response to the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The council voted unanimously during a virtual meeting last week to begin holding in-person sessions again starting Monday, November 15 when the Finance and Audit Committee will meet at City Hall. On Tuesday, September 7, the council voted 6-3 to resume meeting virtually again just two months after they began holding in-person meetings for the first time since the pandemic stopped the world in its tracks in mid-March 2020. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed the state of emergency to expire in late June of this year, forcing municipal governments to hold in-person meetings under the state’s Open Meetings Law.
In September, council members expressed concern about a late summer surge in COVID-19 infections.
“I’m concerned for the health and well-being not only of the members of the community but also for the members of the Common Council,” said Majority Leader Reynolds Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) during the September meeting. “Speaking as somebody who is immune-compromised, I have deep concerns about continuing to have public meetings in the period where we don’t know what’s happening with the Delta variant of the COVID virus. And also to protect our workers, who are doing such a great job to make this seem very easy for us.”
That decision was reached later in a day where Mayor Steve Noble announced a similar decision about board and committee meetings. The Common Council measure was passed by a 6-3 vote, with those opposed including Democratic alderpersons Don Tallerman (Ward 5) and Michele Hirsch (Ward 9), and non-enrolled alderman Patrick O’Reilly (Ward 7).
The Common Council’s return to virtual meetings followed a statewide extension of allowing virtual public meetings. New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation on September 2 extending virtual access to public meetings under the state’s Open Meetings Law through January 15, 2022 provided the public has access to view or listen to the meeting, and as long as the meeting is recorded and later transcribed.
“Let’s be clear — the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I’ve heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually,” said Hochul in a press release. “This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers’ access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings. This law will continue to bolster the open and transparent style of government that we›re committed to maintaining in the Empire State.”
But Scott-Childress spoke in favor of resuming in-person sessions during a meeting of the Common Council held virtually on Tuesday, November 9.
“When we decided to go back, there was a period there where the Delta numbers were increasing pretty rapidly, and there was a deep concern that we didn’t know where they would plateau,” Scott-Childress said. “But now, not only have they plateaued, but they’re beginning to descend.”
Scott-Childress added that in-person meetings could resume safely because attendees at meetings are following recommended protocols and taking the pandemic seriously.
“People are wearing masks, wearing them appropriately,” he said. “I think most people now, certainly the vast majority of us have been (vaccinated), not just with the two doses, but now sometimes the triple dose. For myself I feel more comfortable going back into in-person meetings, again, so long as we follow the protocols of wearing masks and keeping somewhat distanced.”
Council President Andrea Shaut said that City Hall’s rules align with those protocols.
“Everybody needs to be masked,” Shaut said. “That’s not an option. You have to wear a mask, visitors have to sign in, and there is social distancing. We will follow the same protocol that City Hall follows all day long.”
Common Council meetings will still be live-streamed and archived after they return to in-person sessions.
After a summer of relatively light transmission rates, active COVID-19 cases in Ulster County began to rise locally again in early August, peaking on Sunday, September 12 at 698. Those numbers were more than halved by the start of October, and they hovered just under 300 through early November. But on November 11 there were a reported 407 active cases in the county, 79 in the City of Kingston.