Athens City Council has been meeting virtually since mid-March, but it may lose that ability on Dec. 1, forcing the city to accommodate for citizen attendance in a safe manner.

The legislation that has allowed municipalities to have governmental meetings through Zoom is due to expire on Dec. 1, Chris Knisely, Athens City Council president, said. However, she and other council members are hoping that legislation is given an extension in light of the rising COVID-19 case numbers in Ohio.

Although there have been a couple technical difficulties, Knisely said overall the council meetings are going smoothly. This has inclined Councilman Peter Kotses, D-At Large, and Councilman Sam Crowl, D-3rd Ward, to say they expect things to stay virtual if legislation is extended.

“I've heard no complaints about people not being able to attend in person,” Crowl said. “So, I think we would continue with this until we all feel it's safe to move back to in-person.”

If legislation is not extended, City Council will have to find a way to continue allowing public access to the meetings while maintaining proper social distancing and other precautions, Knisely said. 

One of the challenges City Council will face if it must return to in person meetings is accommodating citizen attendance. When meeting in person, there are generally citizen attendees, just as there have been throughout virtual meetings. 

The council chambers can only fit eight people properly distanced, Kotses said. 

Kotses also said Council just began discussing the logistical aspect of moving meetings back to in-person.

“I think that would have to perhaps be a hybrid … setting that if we did have to resume in person meetings,” Kinsely said. “Maybe we can still hook up the Zoom feature and be able to get people's comments and questions.”

The idea of moving back to in-person meetings, however, is not appealing to Knisely, Crowl or Kotses. All three council members expressed a hope for virtual meetings to continue until COVID-19 numbers have decreased significantly or a vaccine has been developed.

“I think we'll have to see what happens,” Crowl said. “If we keep having these increases and we haven't gotten control, then I would say we stay out, we'd stay virtual for through the spring, until maybe there is a vaccine.”

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