Yesterday (1/3), COVID twitter was filled with reports from doctors and public health officials warning of the crushing surge of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus that is expected to peak in the next few weeks. This was accompanied by reports from across the country of offices, schools, universities, and businesses retreating from business as usual and returning to more cautious practices including distancing, remote meetings, and mandates. Doctors’ offices are scrambling to transfer appointments to tele-medicine visits. Area hospitals are flooded with COVID patients. So I was taken aback last night when the new town council voted 9-3 at its inaugural meeting to return immediately to face-to-face meetings. I just can’t wrap my head around how this makes sense to anyone, and Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke’s prior exhortations that if our kids are in school all day then we can meet together as well rings out of tune, especially as school officials around the country worry about the dangers posed by the return to school and skyrocketing pediatric hospitalizations. There was little discussion prior to the vote of the burgeoning threat of Omicron nor of the measures being undertaken elsewhere.
State law allows local governments to continue to meet remotely until April 1, so it’s not like there is a time pressure to restore old practices while we descend into a surge of what is apparently the most infectious disease of the modern era. And Town Manager Paul Bockelman announced at the meeting that all town committees (that is, those not under the aegis of the Town Council), will continue to meet over Zoom exclusively until at least April 1. The Council will decide at its next meeting on January 24, the format of meetings of its own committees (e.g. Finance, CRC, GOL).
Thankfully, these face-to-face meetings will be closed to the public who will continue to be able to view the meetings and to participate in public comment segments over Zoom. And the risk to the councilors of acquiring COVID at these meetings appears minimal. They will be the only ones in the room aside from Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Clerk of Council Athena O’Keeffe, and technical staff. All will be masked and distanced, and eating and drinking in the Town Room where the meeting takes place will presumably be prohibited, even for meetings that often last five hours or more. And those councilors who feel that the risk of attending in person is too great will have the option of participating remotely.
Certainly town councilors each have a right to decide what level of risk they are willing to take. And if they are willing to sit in a room without eating or drinking and believe that the risk of meeting under those circumstances is inconsequential, well, more power to them I guess. But their decision also sets an example, and in this case, the example is counter to national trends. I am left to wonder why the council feels the need to set off in this alternative direction. To me, the decision seems imprudent. There is no apparent urgency to resume this meeting format as the Town Manager has indicated with his own committees. This rush back to face-to face meeting is perplexing. And I would say that it represents an inauspicious beginning for this council.
Art Keene is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass Amherst. He was co-founder and co-director of two social justice-based civic leadership programs at UMass, the UMass Alliance For Community Transformation (UACT) and the Community Scholars Program. He is Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy.