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How COVID-19 has changed how city, county government meets
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The Flowery Branch city council hold a retreat meeting March 26, 2021, in person but still overserving pandemic safety requirements of social distancing. - photo by Scott Rogers

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, most area governments were holding virtual-only meetings.

They’re now weighing how to hold them in a post-pandemic world — whether to continue with online formats, in-person only or a combination of the two.

Here’s a look at how each government is dealing with the issue.

Hall County


The Hall County government is currently the only locality still livestreaming its meetings, which can be accessed on the county’s website via the video sharing website Vimeo.

The county’s implementation of livestreaming started in March, and one of the components they installed, GoToWebinar, has allowed them to broadcast meetings and respond to viewer questions in a timely fashion.

“We began utilizing GoToWebinar — a companion service to GoToMeeting, which Hall County has used for virtual conferencing amid the pandemic — to facilitate public comments remotely in real time,” said Katie Crumley, spokesperson for the county. “All other functions, including the camera and audio systems, computer for processing video, video editing software and form application on the County website were already in place pre-pandemic and came at no additional cost.”

Viewership and staffing are among the items being considered in continuing the live streams, Crumley said.

As for in-person meetings, Crumley said that the county is monitoring the moves from federal, state and health officials as COVID-19 vaccinations rise.

“Hall County officials are continuing to monitor local and regional health data, as well as recommendations from the CDC, White House and State of Georgia, as they make decisions about in-person meetings,” said Crumley  “Those factors, rather than specific dates, will determine next steps; however, we are encouraged by recent downward trends in the number of positive COVID-19 cases for our area.”

 

Gainesville


Gainesville began livestreaming its City Council meetings in late March after the CDC and state officials cracked down on large gatherings and recommended limited capacity for in-person meetings.

“As the coronavirus pandemic quickly worsened, and due to fast-changing efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State of Georgia to stop the spread, the city wanted to ensure the community was kept abreast of changes on the local level,” said city spokesperson Christina Santee.

The city found the transition to livestreams — which were hosted on Facebook Live with the help of an encoding device Epiphan Webcaster X2 — was a good way to be transparent about the unprecedented day-to-day disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the livestreams served as a way for the city to reliably broadcast the ever-changing decisions

“During the height of the pandemic, the city did see an increase in viewership of meetings that were live streamed,” Santee said. “We attributed this to heightened interest as medical professionals released more information about the unfamiliar coronavirus, businesses and schools were closing, events were being canceled and rumors began circulating of a state-mandated shelter-in-place order.”

But by April, the city noticed a strong decline in viewership on their livestreams.

So, the city of Gainesville reverted back to its normal filming process

Santee said there are no plans to resume livestream sessions at this time. She said the city will coordinate their strategies for in-person meetings, which currently involves social distancing and mask-wearing measures in the Gainesville Municipal Court, with further recommendation from CDC and other health bodies.
Santee said that council prefers in-person attendance due to the quicker response times for constituents airing grievances.

“City officials were missing the face-to-face interactions with members of the community, whose concerns are always better heard and more quickly responded to in person instead of a social media platform’s comments section,” said Santee. “Because city staff has been able to safely and comfortably accommodate the level of visitors we typically see, we have been able to maintain in-person meetings for a while now.”


Flowery Branch


Flowery Branch resumed virtual meetings in the winter, when virus cases started climbing again.

They returned to in-person meetings only earlier this month.

The decision was made “was based on the declining numbers of COVID cases in Hall County and Flowery Branch,” Mayor Mike Miller said.

“The majority of the council feels that our meetings were meant to be in person and whenever possible, we will all be in the same room.”

Officials are keeping an eye on the numbers to see if there will be another spike of virus cases.

“We will leave virtual meetings as an option, but it would only be (used) in an extreme situation,” Miller said.

City officials found the virtual meetings on GoToMeeting a bit unwieldy.

“Logistically, it becomes difficult to keep it legitimate,” Miller said. “People using fake names, not using video, and they feel they have the freedom to say anything they would like whether it is appropriate or not.”

However, “there may be an opportunity to broadcast meetings” at some point, he added.


Oakwood


Oakwood has tried to hold open meetings throughout the pandemic but has been very strict about precautions.

Temperatures are checked at the front door, everyone must wear a mask and seats are 6 feet apart. Meetings have been canceled if a public official or staff member was being quarantined.

No virtual meetings are being held currently.

“We did try a couple of virtual meetings,” City Manager B.R. White said. “Three or four people did log in to the meeting and we did have some technical glitches.”

Otherwise, White has “no issues with holding virtual meetings. I believe it helps governments to conduct business out in the open.”

He said he is studying the “technology aspects of holding almost glitch-free virtual meetings.”

“When the council is ready to move in that direction, all we will have to do is implement an existing plan,” White said.


Braselton


Braselton returned to in-person meetings in May 2020 and throughout the pandemic hasn’t had many virtual meetings, Town Manager Jennifer Scott said.

“We are able to establish 6-foot separation between unrelated people in our courtroom,” where meetings are held, she said.

“My elected officials don’t want to attend online,” Scott said. “They want to be in person so long as it is safe.”

Plus, the technology to do virtual meetings can get expensive, she said.

“I looked at hiring a company to do simultaneous in-person and virtual (meetings) for just the Development Code open house and the estimate for that one two-hour meeting was $1,500,” she said.

The company would have furnished the equipment and personnel needed for the service.

“Even if we purchased and installed all the equipment, we would have to hire someone for each meeting,” Scott said.

“For a town without property taxes, we just don’t have the budget for this,” she said. “It would mean cutting out other services to fund it.”


Reporter Jeff Gill contributed

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