Tech issues prevent Dover council from meeting in person

DOVER — Members of Dover City Council have not conducted a meeting inside council chambers at City Hall since March 9, just around the time the outbreak of COVID-19 began to take hold in Delaware.

After several cancellations of council meetings, Dover officials opted to turn to Webex to conduct city business virtually — and have been doing so since April 13.

Now, with talk of the Dover Public Library reopening soon and stores and restaurants slowly getting back to business, city officials have been studying the possibility of returning to live council meetings.

Dover City Manager Donna Mitchell told members of City Council during their meeting last week that the biggest issue to returning to live meetings is not a physical one, but rather, technical concerns.

Donna Mitchell

“We’ve done some checking, and I’ve had (staff) check on the possibility of having the live meetings again,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “What they found is the council desks are fine. … They would have to move them like 4 inches over a little bit to get the exact 6 feet (of social distancing). They can get that done and not have to do any major renovations or anything like that.

“The daises, though (at the rear of council chambers), we can have three people in each dais and be 6 feet apart. The audience seats … with taping off the ones to get everybody 6 feet apart, would leave us with 11 seats. Then, we would need to use those 11 seats for displaced people at the dais or the council members.”

That would seriously limit people’s participation at meetings that are designed to be public.

“The problem we have is technology,” added Mrs. Mitchell. “We couldn’t do Dover TV to allow people to call in if they wanted to call in, and we would need to do Webex. … Everybody would need to bring in a laptop. To open the building to the public, you would have to turn people away if you had a greater number of people than you had seats for.

“It’s the technical side that’s the big issue. The other issue is the public access and having to turn people away and what that would do. Council (members) would probably be the ones who would need to answer to their constituents for not (being able to) come into the meeting,” she said.

There are several hurdles remaining that the city would have to overcome to return to hosting live meetings at City Hall.

“What we’re concerned about, and what (City Solicitor Nicholas) Rodriguez is concerned about, is if we turn people away because it is a public meeting and we don’t allow them in and they get agitated, what kind of problems will that create?” Mrs. Mitchell said.

Councilman David Anderson suggested having individuals make reservations for the limited seating that would be available should the meetings go live again.

“I definitely would love for us to find a way to start meeting again in the chambers,” said Councilman Anderson. “I think one possibility is to have people who wish to come to chambers (to) call ahead, so they can be on the list, and that way if it’s filled up, we can tell them and they could go on Webex and still participate.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I’m hoping that in the next few weeks, we’ll find both.”

Fred Neil is the eldest member of Dover City Council, and he requested that the city continue to conduct its meetings virtually for the foreseeable future. Due to his age, he is among the most vulnerable population for COVID-19 infection.

“My concern is twofold, one of which is, most places that I’ve gone into meetings, they’ve actually checked my temperature,” Councilman Neil said. “Are we going to check temperatures? Because basically, we are going to expose people if we don’t know who’s coming in, and then another problem is transparency, because some people will not be able to come in.
“Until we have these problems worked out, I would say continue (to have meetings on Webex).”

Mrs. Mitchell responded to Councilman Neil that in the city’s preliminary reopening plan, personal protection equipment would be made available, and staff would be on hand to check temperatures of everybody who entered City Hall.

Councilman Ralph Taylor Jr. suggested that the city look at having its council meetings at Dover High School until the COVID-19 pandemic diminishes.

“Is it an option for us to collaborate with one of our community partners like Capital School District?” he asked Mrs. Mitchell. “Maybe we can have meetings at Dover High School. A church (United Church) meets there every Sunday. I don’t think it would be a problem for us to meet there once or twice a month.

“There’s plenty of spacing on the stage, as well as plenty of seating, and their technology department is really up to speed. I believe it may be a win-win if we decide to do that,” he said.

Councilman Scott Cole said he wants to make sure city officials put the rules together in black and white before returning to live meetings.

“I’m all for any of this as long as there’s clear protocols and procedures in place,” he said. “I’m ready to come back. I think a lot of it is conjecture right now and ‘can we do this, can we do that?’ I think as staff brings us procedures and protocols, then I’ll be ready to vote.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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