OCEAN CITY — Ocean City’s Mayor and Council will continue to meet in a virtual format until the council chambers can be made safe for the elected officials, staff and attendees after another spirited debate this week.
Throughout much of the spring, state COVID-19 directives mandated the Mayor and Council’s public meetings be held virtually. In June, when Maryland entered stage two of its COVID recovery plan and more public and private entities began to reopen, the council went back to meeting in person at City Hall in a hybrid format.
Through much of the summer, the meetings were held in the hybrid format, although the elected officials were not all seated at their usual positions on the dais. The one exception was Councilman Dennis Dare, who had expressed early on he was not comfortable with meeting in a public forum and continued to participate remotely.
In August, the council, for a variety of reasons, went back to the strictly virtual meeting format. For one thing, the hybrid format with Dare participating remotely was fraught with glitches. There were also times when there was a delay in the real-time in-person meeting and Dare’s live-feed from home.
Perhaps most importantly, meeting safely in person in the council chambers with the public in attendance while achieving social distancing goals remained challenging. The councilmembers and staff were spread out appropriately and, at some point, masks were required of all attendees, but the seating for the public was arranged in the traditional way and social distancing was not always observed. In addition, there were concerns raised about those who chose to speak at the meetings sharing the same microphone or same podium and desk.
However, with many of the key COVID metrics at least stabilizing and Maryland entering stage three in its COVID recovery plan, Councilman Tony DeLuca near the close of Tuesday’s meeting made a motion to return to the in-person meetings at City Hall, a motion seconded by Councilman Mark Paddack. Dare remained consistent in his concerns about rushing back to in-person meetings.
“Unless it is under certain conditions, I will not be attending in person,” he said. “Throughout all of this, I have been told if I don’t feel safe, I don’t have to come.”
Dare said he didn’t feel the timing was right yet to return to open public meetings at City Hall.
“I just don’t see the urgency to go back right now,” he said. “Schools are closed. The state’s Board of Public Works and other government entities are still meeting virtually. We have sporting events with no fans in attendance.”
Dare suggested the same directives such as social distancing and the wearing of masks should continue even if and when COVID abates.
“It’s not just COVID-19,” he said. “There are other viruses every year and flu season is coming. The common cold is also a virus. We’re not talking only about COVID-19 in 2020. We should be taking measures to make us safe from all of these things.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said the mask requirement during the in-person meetings made it difficult for the elected officials to communicate among themselves and with the public in attendance.
“I do agree with meeting virtually for now,” he said. “I have to wear a mask all day at work and it’s difficult to communicate with people with a mask on. I think we need to look into certain things to make the council chambers safe for public meetings.”
However, Councilman John Gehrig said there was no good reason the challenges with meeting in person at City Hall could not be resolved.
“We have the means available,” he said. “Now, we’re talking about the common cold and the flu. When does it stop? We serve the public and we have the technology to make it work. We can get those things figured out.”
Gehrig suggested the Mayor and Council were doing the public a disservice by not having accessible meetings open to the public in person at City Hall.
“We have some major things on the horizon and I don’t think we should be doing them while hiding behind a computer screen,” he said. “That’s not what we signed up to do. I think we can make all of the safety precautions to meet in public because this is awkward. We need to engage with the public and there is no reason not to do it.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he saw both sides of the issue and said the city manager and the city engineer can work through some of the problems with the council chambers and in person meetings.
“I would like to see us get back to meeting in person at some point,” he said. “Everybody has done a great job adjusting to meeting virtually. I think Dennis brought up some good points. I think we can look at council chambers to see how we can better serve the public safely. This is going to be here for a while. Let’s have the city manager and the city engineer look at ways to do that.”