Although new cases of COVID-19 continue to be recorded daily in Nova Scotia, and some cases have even cropped up in the Eastern Zone, local and provincial numbers are low enough to allow all municipal councils in the Strait area to hold in-person meetings.
During the regular monthly meeting of Port Hawkesbury Town Council on Jan. 5, the elected body decided it will continue meeting via GoToPublicMeeting.
Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Terry Doyle told council he polled neighbouring municipalities and found that Victoria and Richmond counties were meeting in council chambers, while Inverness Municipal Council decided to hold their Jan. 7 regular monthly council meeting via Zoom.
Doyle said the Association of Municipal Administrators conducted a survey which found that “most” municipalities were meeting virtually. According to the survey, some municipalities that were meeting in-person were considering moving back to the virtual format in December, while others have been meeting virtually since last year.
Town councillor Jason Aucoin said council should return to in-person meetings. He pointed out that local numbers have been “really low,” and provincially there have been many recoveries, while the numbers of daily new cases continue to drop.
The rest of town council did not share those sentiments.
Town councillor Mark MacIver said cases have remained low because the public has been cautious, and as leaders of the community, public meetings might be sending the wrong message.
Town councillor Hughie MacDougall said the virtual format is the best way to reach as many residents as possible, for the time being.
Deputy Warden Blaine MacQuarrie said he would like to see tangible decreases in cases before going to an in-person format, noting that the reasons for remaining virtual are as valid now as they were last year.
Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton had council agree to revisit the issue during the regular monthly meeting in February.
Inverness councillors decided to revert back to Zoom despite holding public meetings in November and December.
The municipality even hosted its swearing-in ceremony and elections of warden and deputy warden at the Judique Community Centre in November, which was attended by approximately 50 members of the public.
Then Inverness Municipal Council met in December at the municipal building in Port Hood; a well-attended session at which everyone wore masks and practiced physical distancing.
But during December’s committee of the whole, Inverness Municipal Council decided to meet virtually.
Warden Laurie Cranton explained that with the number of daily new COVID-19 cases “ramping up,” council wanted to error on the side of caution.
Although he believes council would rather meet face-to-face, he noted that Zoom will work for the time being as it did early last year.
The warden said council will review the issue at next month’s meeting, then decide on a monthly basis after that whether to continue meeting online.
This contradicts what was said during December’s regular monthly meeting when councillors agreed to keep meeting at the former courthouse.
District 4 councillor Catherine Gillis and district 3 councillor Lynn Chisholm agreed that the practice of in-person meetings where everyone was distanced and wearing masks when moving around, was working. But like deputy warden Bonny MacIsaac, the councillors agreed that if new cases start to rise, those plans could change.
Cranton said at the time that anyone entering the municipal building is screened and has their temperature taken, and he believed such protocols were working well.
The warden said that the municipality should keep an eye on the situation, and if council decides to return to virtual meetings, staff is ready.
While there was a slight bump in new cases last month, and there have been a few cases at StFX University, the rates have not reached a level that would require councils to meet online.
In the cases of Richmond and Victoria municipal councils, both do cover largely rural areas, but the elected bodies have been meeting publicly for months without any problems.
As in the case of Inverness County at the end of last year, attendees in Arichat are mandated to wear masks and physically distance.
Richmond Municipal Council decided to continue meeting in-person during its committee of the whole meeting on Jan. 11.
Richmond CAO Don Marchand told council there are still municipalities across the province meeting in council chambers. Meanwhile councillors felt there is enough room and the rules are clear to allow them to continue meeting at the municipal building.
In the case of other local municipalities, the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, as well as Antigonish town and county, have all been meeting in-person, without any hiccups.
The only mainland unit to cancel public meetings is the Town of Mulgrave. In December town council once again closed the gallery to the public as a result of the recommendations from the town’s Emergency Management Officer. Following their regular monthly meeting on Dec. 7, Mayor Ron Chisholm said the decision was a preventative measure during the second wave of COVID-19.
There are many problems with the virtual setting: the audio is not always as clear as it should be; not everyone has access to a sufficient internet connection to attend the meetings; there are glitches and delays in the video feed; and it is hard to determine at times who is speaking.
In the case of Mulgrave, they were unable to host a virtual meeting or livestream due to ongoing internet service issues. Until a new internet service provider is integrated, the town will record meetings and post them the following day on the town’s website. But even after live-streaming resumes, the public gallery will remain closed until they’re able to safely re-open.
But why are Mulgrave and Port Hawkesbury virtual in the first place? Both are small towns with centralized populations, and both hold their meetings in facilities where public access is tightly controlled.
The virtual setting should only be used in emergency situations, if COVID-19 cases suddenly and dramatically rise, or when inclement weather makes travel difficult.
Public health protocols from the province are clear and do allow for in-person meetings, and with provincial officials expressing confidence in current transmission levels, all municipal councils in the region should be holding in-person meetings.
If numbers change, then they can and should consider going online.