Kenosha city government meetings will continue virtually via teleconference until at least the end of the year due to growing concerns about the next wave of COVID-19 infections and an increase in cases statewide amid the pandemic.
“I’ve been in contact with the Health Department and I talked to Jen (Freiheit, Kenosha County health director) and they recommend we should not be having in-person meetings, I’m told, because you can’t control the crowd and what’s going on,” Mayor John Antaramian said in an interview Wednesday night.
The city has not been spared when it comes to the novel coronavirus, he said.
“We’ve had COVID hit us (city employees), just like everyone else,” he said. “If one person comes down with it, we all have 14 days of quarantine. It just becomes a number of issues for health and safety. So, it just is safer for the council and the public to continue to do it this way.”
Cases on the rise
As of Wednesday, Wisconsin recorded its highest one-day total of new COVID-19 deaths with 48. Statewide testing results also returned a 43 percent positive rate for the novel coronavirus. The virus has killed 1,681 people to date during the pandemic in the state. Nearly 183,000 people have tested positive, an increase of 4,205 compared with a day earlier.
In Kenosha County, 4,555 have confirmed positive cases, including 78 new cases as of Wednesday; 46,139 have also test negative, since the start of the pandemic. The county has had 74 deaths due to COVID-19, with more than half (41) of occurring in people 50 to 79 years of age.
According to the county’s seven-day moving average data, the number of positive cases has been trending upward, nearly doubling, from 33 per day, at the start of the month, to 60 per day to date. During that span, the daily number of new COVID-19 hospitalizations also has tripled.
“It literally comes down to the COVID issue has again picked up, so it’s just being careful and we want to make sure people stay safe,” Antaramian said.
Virtual meetings since March
For the last seven months, the council and its committees have been participating in virtual meetings from their homes or sites other than City Hall via Zoom phone-in audio conference. The public also phones in to listen and/or participate. The mayor conducts council meetings from within the council chambers with a few staff present, mainly for tech support.
On March 25, the council voted unanimously on an emergency declaration granting Antaramian additional authority to allow for conducting the city’s public meetings virtually. The city uses phone teleconferencing because remote access by video is not currently possible due to the Municipal Building’s technical limitations. At the time, city staff also worked remotely as the state hunkered down under Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order.
Later, City Administrator John Morrissey was tasked with re-opening city government, first bringing back into the fold city staff working from home. Then, reinstating in-person city government meetings.
City crews had installed Plexiglas partitions with a quasi-cubicle style layout so that each City Council member would be protected with clear barriers on three sides in council chambers. Similar barriers were built at the dais for the mayor, council president and staff, and in the areas for administration and the public. Hand sanitizers were strategically placed in each area.
‘In-person’ in flux
Morrissey’s initial intent was to re-start in-person meetings in July. The meetings had been set to re-open next month in time for budget hearings. Those plans have been scrapped.
The logistics to insure the health and safety of both city staff and the public, abiding by the necessary pandemic protocols, however, have been a “balancing act” and have also delayed re-establishing in-person city committees where social distancing is “extremely difficult,” he said.
Previously, when the committees met, they were in partitioned or smaller rooms with cramped seating arrangements.
Antaramian said determining when city meetings will eventually transition to in real life gatherings depends on how the virus reacts to protocols, measures and even breakthroughs to halt its spread.