By Rich Pollack
After months of meeting virtually, municipal government leaders throughout south Palm Beach County are about to take their seats on a dais — but they won’t be getting too close.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to end an order that allowed virtual meetings means that towns and cities that had virtually gathered elected officials are scrambling to come up with safe ways to hold meetings in person again.
Some towns and cities are moving to larger spaces to make social distancing easier during the coronavirus pandemic, while others will require visitors to get temperature checks before they can sit down in the council chambers.
“Everybody is taking a different level of precaution, but everyone is doing something,” said attorney Glen Torcivia, whose firm represents several coastal communities, including South Palm Beach, Ocean Ridge and Highland Beach.
With a deadline of Nov. 1, some communities were still finalizing preparations in late October, but one precaution that seems most common is the installation of plexiglass partitions between elected officials. All are also requiring face coverings, and most are providing hand sanitizer for those who attend in person.
Highland Beach officials plan to have commissioners and a limited number of residents attend meetings in person due to CDC guidelines and the capacity of the commission chambers. People wishing to attend will have a chance to register a day in advance and will be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Residents and visitors will still be able to view and participate in meetings virtually, Town Manager Marshall Labadie said.
“We’re moving closer to how it used to be, but with CDC guidelines it could be a little tricky,” Labadie said.
To help ensure the safety of those attending a meeting in person, the town will conduct temperature checks and require masks and social distancing.
Delray Beach has crafted a detailed protocol for visitors that is explained in a video posted on Facebook. Those wishing to attend a commission meeting will first see a sign outside City Hall with reminders on social distancing and mask wearing. Once inside, they will answer a series of screening questions to determine if they have been exposed to the coronavirus. They will then have their temperatures scanned before entering the commission chambers, where they will find many seats blocked off to ensure social distancing.
To handle an overflow, Delray will let people watch on television in the Civic Center.
Like many communities, Delray Beach will continue to make it possible to view the meetings online.
One exception is Gulf Stream, which recently discontinued online access and now offers only in-person attendance. For several months, the town offered hybrid meetings combining virtual access with in-person attendance.
Ocean Ridge has also been holding in-person meetings all along while still offering virtual access to the public. One commissioner, who has a summer home out of state, was attending remotely but that is likely to change, Town Manager Tracey Stevens said.
Ocean Ridge will also require actual attendance by residents wishing to comment.
“We will still provide live audio feed for people to listen to the meeting, but no public participation will be available unless it is in person,” Stevens said.
Lantana has also offered in-person meetings since the beginning of the pandemic but will now require all elected and appointed officials to be at Town Hall. The town will continue to broadcast meetings live via telephone and, like Ocean Ridge, make audio recordings available the day after the meeting.
Manalapan officials plan to hold in-person meetings and will arrange chairs to be socially distanced. Masks will be required, and hand sanitizer stations will be set up.
Although the state will require elected officials to attend meetings in person, Torcivia said there are exceptions and he believes commissioners or council members with health issues should be OK attending virtually.
That could be good news for elected officials in South Palm Beach and Briny Breezes who don’t want to chance contracting the virus.
In South Palm Beach, which is adapting the small Town Hall auditorium to accommodate social distancing, some council members could be attending the meetings by phone.
In Briny Breezes, where some council members have similar health concerns, virtual meetings have been held since the spring. The town plans to hold in-person meetings but will move them from the tiny Town Hall auditorium to the corporate community center, where it is much easier to social distance.
Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell invoked home rule authority on Oct. 27 to disregard the governor’s order and continue virtual City Council meetings.
In Boynton Beach, where a hybrid system is used with the mayor at a government building but commissioners accessing remotely, an emergency ordinance passed unanimously on Sept. 30 giving commissioners an opportunity to invoke home rule and continue holding virtual meetings until December. City leaders have yet to decide if they will meet in person before the end of the year. Ú