OCEAN CITY- After three months of virtual Mayor and Council meetings, the elected officials this week briefly considered returning to in-person, open public meetings at City Hall, but the proposal was put on the back burner for now.
For nearly three months, the Mayor and Council have been holding their public meetings in a virtual format via Zoom. With Maryland in stage two of its COVID-19 recovery plan and more and more public and private entities reopening, Councilman Tony DeLuca during Tuesday’s work session made a motion to return to having public meetings in the traditional open format at City Hall starting next Monday.
Under the proposal, the Mayor and Council and staff along with members of the public who chose to attend would continue to practice physical distancing, wear masks and even have pre-meeting temperature checks and health screenings, according to Council Secretary Mary Knight.
“I want to assure the public we will follow the guidelines and take every precaution to conduct the public meetings safely,” she said. “We will do health checks on everyone who attends the meetings and we will practice social distancing.”
DeLuca’s motion appeared to be heading toward approval before Councilman Dennis Dare weighed in.
“Through all of these meetings about COVID-19, it’s been said over and over if someone isn’t comfortable, they don’t have to attend,” he said. “Well at this point, I’m not comfortable.”
Dare said it appeared his colleagues, along with most of the public, had relaxed their personal safety measures with the coronavirus waning.
“It seems as though some of the attitudes about social distancing and wearing masks have gotten a little cavalier,” he said. “I’m not going to be at these open meetings at this point, but I’d like to be able to continue to participate via Zoom.”
Councilman John Gehrig said finding a way to allow the Mayor and Council to meet in person while figuring out how to have Dare participate should be explored.
“I respect his concerns,” he said. “I think there should be a way to accommodate his wishes. He brings a lot of value to this council and our meetings.”
Gehrig asked Dare what his comfort level would be and at what point did he think he would reach it. Dare said he was uncertain.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I do know I have been on a ventilator before and I don’t want to be again.”
At that point, DeLuca rescinded his motion for the Mayor and Council to begin meeting in an in-person, open forum in the council chambers at City Hall.
“If one person doesn’t want to meet like that yet, we shouldn’t do it,” he said. “I will withdraw my motion.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said the council would continue to meet virtually until an accommodation could be worked out.
“We will continue to meet via Zoom for now,” he said. “The staff will look into some way to have a hybrid meeting to accommodate Dennis.”
For the record, most public bodies in the area including the Worcester County Commissioners and the Berlin Mayor and Council, for example, have returned to open, in-person meeting formats.