CLEARWATER — Is it possible to hold a safe City Council meeting during an unprecedented global pandemic?
Clearwater is going to try Thursday.
The meeting won’t look like a typical City Council gathering. Council members will sit spread out behind the dais, keeping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended six feet of distance. Citizens who wish to offer public comment in person will be brought in one by one from a nearby room where the meeting will be broadcast. At least one city staff member plans to video conference into the meeting. Many more will stay home.
All of those efforts are a part of the city’s attempt to stop the invisible menace of the coronavirus from spreading in the City Council chambers.
But Sally Alrabaa, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine, said the city’s precautions won’t be enough to guarantee a safe meeting.
"Anything that can be rescheduled, cancelled or done virtually, you want to do that as plan A,” Alrabaa said.
The six-foot distancing rule is important to heed because when a person coughs or sneezes, the droplets projected travel about six feet, Alrabaa said. The coronavirus is most often transmitted via those droplets.
After a cough or sneeze, the virus can also live in the air as long as three hours, Alrabaa said. Other than the people who have been tested, we don’t know who has the virus and who does not, so any social gathering comes with a degree of risk, she said.
But Thursday’s gathering also holds special significance to Clearwater. In one of the early agenda items, the city will bid farewell to outgoing City Council members: former mayor George Cretekos and former council members Jay Polglaze and Bob Cundiff.
After that, the city will ceremonially swear in three new members: Mayor Frank Hibbard and council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker. (The three were officially sworn in Monday.)
When asked why the city wouldn’t cancel or postpone the meeting — which will be held the day after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a statewide stay-at-home order — City Manager Bill Horne said he felt it was important to show Clearwater residents the city’s traditional changing of the guard.
“One meeting where you are completely observing social distancing criteria is not going to kill you," Horne said. “Ideally you would just completely shut it down. But I don’t think we’re compromising much here.”
The city plans to hold virtual council meetings after Thursday. But technological limitations prevented this week’s meeting from being held online, city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli said. The equipment Clearwater needs to conduct a virtual meeting is on back-order.
Bunker, one of the new council members, has already been through one coronavirus scare. The day before the city’s Election Day last month, Bunker felt ill enough to get tested for the virus. After two weeks of quarantine, his results came back negative.
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Hibbard, who previously served as mayor from 2005 until 2012, will preside over Thursday’s gathering. He said he expects the city to face some criticism for holding an in-person meeting.
“I think we are going to meet all the criteria of social distancing,” Hibbard said. “I’m more worried about the perception than the actual danger."
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How to watch Thursday’s meeting
When: April 2 at 6:00 p.m.
Submit a public comment online: Here
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