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Seven months after they started planning upgrades to chambers that would allow for in-person sessions, City Council still isn’t meeting face-to-face, even as many Philadelphians have returned to in-person work environments and gatherings.
But the city is giving thought to what proceedings will look like in the future.
In-house IT staff is currently working “to consider installing wireless technology” that would allow better social distancing between councilmembers, as well as members of the public, said Joe Grace, a spokesperson for Council President Darrell Clarke.
“As COVID-19 case counts are slowly rising again in Philadelphia and nearby, [and given] that the Health Department may soon recommend a return to indoor mask mandates, we will proceed with caution,” Grace added.
Council meets on Thursdays. While those meetings have been online, councilmembers and their staff can be seen around City Hall throughout the week.
But returning the entire legislative body — and members of the public, who are welcome to attend the Thursday sessions — is considered a different situation.
Reconfiguring the chamber’s mic system for social distancing purposes was in the works as early as September, Clarke told WHYY. Council did not want to install plastic shields between members, he said, suggesting, “Ideally, we would hope in a couple of weeks” to return to in-person council sessions.
At the time, the delta variant was dominant in the U.S., causing breakthrough infections in vaccinated people as well as unvaccinated people. Then the omicron variant took over, which is even more transmissible between vaccinated people, but also usually causes milder symptoms. Health officials believe the BA.2 omicron variant is now spreading in Philadelphia, causing the current uptick in cases.
On Monday, the Philly Health Department will issue its weekly COVID-19 update on Monday, and may announce a move back to requiring masks indoors, known as the Level 2 response. As of this week, the city remains in Level 1, or “All Clear,” with an average of 94 new cases per day on April 4. The threshold for Level 2 is 100 average cases per day.
So Council hearings and weekly meetings will continue to take place virtually, per spokesperson Grace, “in an abundance of caution for the public’s health, as well as the health of Council members and staff.”
Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act requires these meetings to be public, and says members of the public must be allowed to attend, participate and comment. People can watch online (go to www.PHLCouncil.com/watch) and on cable TV (Xfinity Ch. 64 or Fios Ch. 40), or listen on WURD 96.1FM / 900AM and WURDradio.com.
Noted Grace: “The public also participates regularly in public comment on bills and hearings, via Microsoft Teams.”