Elected officials are working with staff on health and safety protocols ahead of a return to City Hall next month.
Beginning in November, the Sarasota City Commission might have to enter what has become unfamiliar territory for most of 2020: the commission chambers at City Hall.
State regulations allowing local government bodies to hold meetings remotely because of COVID-19 are scheduled to expire at the end of the month after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a final extension Sept. 30. On Oct. 5, the City Commission began a discussion about what protocols it wants to set for in-person meetings.
The board is focused on limiting the occupancy at those meeting and adhering to guidelines designed to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Staff intends to mark off seats in the audience to ensure adequate spacing, creating a cap of 29 available spaces. Even though a majority of the commission must be physically present in the commission chambers, the board suggested having two commissioners participate remotely.
Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie was the only commissioner to volunteer to continue to participate remotely. She also said she hoped the city could find a way to incorporate its recent use of videoconference software into its in-person meetings. City auditor and clerk Shayla Griggs said staff could not find a way to make a hybrid meeting work with the technology available.
“It’s just the way our current system is set up,” Griggs said. “We just can’t get around it without having to spend money to change it.”
Griggs said staff estimated it could cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to implement the required technology. A majority of the commission expressed interest in continuing to pursue the option of a hybrid meeting, stating that videoconference capability could be both a short-term and long-term benefit for commission meetings.
“In the past, we have delayed hearing items in the summer because part of our population is up north,” Freeland Eddie said. “I think it’s positive all the way around.”
Although Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said she would like the commission to consider getting tested for COVID-19 prior to every meeting, other board members said they felt it was adequate to conduct temperature checks before entering the commission chambers.
The board agreed to continue its discussion at its next meeting on Monday, Oct. 19, but commissioners signaled consensus on requiring attendees to wear face masks, limiting occupancy in the commission chambers, asking speakers to wait in separate rooms before making their remarks to the commission, investing in air filtration systems and establishing sanitation standards.
The Sarasota County Commission, which was already meeting in-person with limited capacity, has not made any adjustment to its meeting protocols, according to a county spokesperson.
As the city attempts to formalize its procedures for in-person meetings, Ahearn-Koch said she wanted officials to operate with an abundance of caution considering the circumstances.
“I would like to personally have us start out as slowly and as limited and as safely as possible,” Ahearn-Koch said. “That’s where I’m coming from. I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t want to get anyone else sick.”