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City still holds in-person meetings as COVID cases rise

City officials say they lack the staff to offer more hybrid meetings, and some alders and boards are opting for face-to-face only sessions.

Coronavirus case counts are rising in Evanston and across the region as cool weather sets in, but Evanston is still holding many government meetings face-to-face.

COVID cases here were up 31% last week. In Chicago, cases are also rising, and Health Director Dr. Allison Arwady says she expects them to continue to rise, especially as people gather for the holidays.

So far this month nine Evanston city government meetings have been held in-person, five in a hybrid format with some people attending in person and 15 in virtual format, using Zoom or another online meeting platform.

That count includes a 1st Ward meeting set for Thursday night that originally was scheduled to be in-person at the Evanston Public Library. But Ald. Clare Kelly switched it to a virtual format because of the increase in COVID cases.

Early in the pandemic Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an emergency declaration authorizing virtual public meetings.

The state legislature then amended the open meetings act to permit holding meetings by audio or video conference whenever the governor or the state public heath director declares a public health disaster and the head of a local governing body within the disaster area determines that in-person meetings are “not practical or prudent.”

Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss issued such a declaration in August, writing that “in person meetings of the City’s Boards, Commissions, and Committees are not practical or prudent due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

Despite that, some boards and committees have continued to meet in person with no virtual participation option, and some alderpersons have chosen to hold in-person-only ward meetings.

In recent weeks the hybrid option has been used only for City Council and standing committee meetings. City spokesman Patrick Deignan says hybrid meetings require additional staff resources that are in short supply.

The 5th Ward hybrid meeting last month.

At least when it comes to ward meetings, when the public is offered a choice, it appears they prefer to participate from home.

On Oct. 28 Ald. Bobby Burns held a hybrid meeting that had more than two dozen residents participating online, but only two in the meeting room at the Gibbs-Morrison Center listening to Burns and the city’s CFO, Hitesh Desai, discuss the budget.

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