ROCKLAND, Maine — The Rockland City Council is back to meeting virtually as the state and region grapple with a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The council resumed in-person meetings at Rockland City Hall in late June, but Monday’s meeting marked a temporary return to Zoom meetings. The school board made a similar decision last month. However, other local towns and cities are waiting before going back to remote meetings for now.
“I think once the winter months hit everyone was saying, ‘When are we going to go back to virtual meetings?’ Especially with the omicron [variant] spreading that much more easily, we just want to be precautious,” Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell said.
The onset of the pandemic nearly two years ago threw Maine cities and municipalities a curveball as they tried to figure out how to conduct business without being able to meet in person. Under the state of emergency, many began holding meetings remotely using video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.
After the state of emergency was lifted in June 2021, state lawmakers passed legislation that formally allowed for Maine cities and towns to continue to hold remote meetings — and allow for remote participation — under certain circumstances, like emergencies. Many cities and larger towns have since passed remote meeting and participation policies that have established a process for them to hold fully remote meetings and hybrid meetings, where people attend in person and others virtually.
“[Municipalities] have been really thoughtful about how to use meetings, both hybrid, remote and in-person … gauging the health of their communities and the safety of their councilors, staff and community members and making those decisions,” Maine Municipal Association Executive Director Cathy Conlow said.
Some cities, like Portland, have yet to return to in-person meetings due to the prevalence and transmission of COVID-19 within their communities.
But many other towns and cities began holding in-person meetings once the state of emergency was lifted last summer. Rockland held its first in-person council meeting since March 2020 in late June, according to the city clerk.
Over the last six months, the city has invested in new technology — like television screens in City Hall chambers — to allow for better remote participation from members of council or the public who cannot attend in person or feel more comfortable participating remotely.
Given the rise in cases, city councilors and city staff felt that going back to fully remote meetings for the interim felt like an appropriate precaution to take, according to Luttrell. The city also has updated its mask policy to require that people wear masks in city buildings, regardless of vaccination status.
“We don’t want city meetings or city procedure to be the reason for an outbreak,” Luttrell said.
In the midcoast, neighboring Thomaston and Camden do not currently have any plans to return to remote meetings. Neither do city councils in Bangor, Augusta and Ellsworth.
Conlow said she hasn’t heard of an increasing number of towns going back to remote meetings. However, she said she wouldn’t be surprised if more do.
“The municipalities have done a pretty phenomenal job of assessing the health and safety of their populations and trying to toggle between those [meeting options] and I do think remote has really shown us that we can actually be more inclusive not less,” Conlow said.