Governor Ron DeSantis extended his emergency order allowing local governments to meet virtually until November 1, but both St. Petersburg city council and the Pinellas County commission are already prepared to resume meeting in person with new safety measures in place.
When that happens, it’ll be the first time in over a year that they’ve been together in City Hall, which was closed for renovations when Covid hit. Alfred Wendler, director of real estate and property management for the city, has been putting in extra time over the last few months to get council chambers ready for the new normal, and it hasn’t always been easy.
“We had to keep changing our plans due to CDC guidelines changing on a weekly basis,” he said.
The first challenge was finding plexiglass, which was suddenly a hot commodity. Then it was trial and error in determining how chambers would be configured, which included setting up a mock layout in a conference room. Now, things are pretty close to complete. Council members and deputy mayor Kanika Tomalin will sit on the dais as before, only now they’ll be separated by plexiglass dividers. They won’t have shields in front of them, Wendler said, because it would “make them feel like they were in a fishbowl.” During their planning, they also determined the plexiglass would cause a glare for people watching meetings on St. Pete TV.
As for who else will be in chambers, Wendler said the plan is to keep the numbers low. The city clerk and attorney will be there, but members of staff doing presentations will continue to do them over Zoom. The public will be able to attend meetings, though they’ll be required to wait in the hallway or downstairs until it’s their turn.
Other safety measures include the installation of an ionizer and an updated air filtration system, but one key method that’s proven to be effective in limiting the spread of the virus doesn’t involve mechanical equipment.
“Everyone will wear a mask the entire meeting,” said council chair Ed Montanari. “It’ll be fine. We’ll adapt to it. If we get tired, we’ll take a recess.”
Mask wearing will also be observed at county commission meetings, according to county administrator Barry Burton. The commission met in person once in late July and masks were worn in accordance with local ordinances. Closed-captioning will be provided for all meetings so the message gets through to anyone watching online.
In terms of promoting safety, Burton said the county has temporarily repurposed a large conference room at its extension facility in Largo to facilitate a spaced-out meeting setup. Tables and chairs will be placed six feet apart, and increased sanitation measures will be taken in high-touch areas such as the check-in table where residents sign in to speak.
Similar to St. Pete, members of the public will be able to attend in-person meetings but will be required to adhere to social distancing and face covering requirements. If the meeting room gets too full, Burton said, there will be additional rooms and public areas designated for people to sit as they await their turn to speak.
Should someone not feel comfortable coming to speak in person after the state order allowing virtual meetings is lifted, Burton said that the commission will have to determine if they’ll still be permitted to call in with their comments.
The public can participate in Thursday’s 8:30 a.m. meeting via Zoom. Going forward, though, he said there are “a lot of things I want to consider” before bringing the public into council chambers and said there are still some questions that haven’t quite been resolved. However, he’s pleased with the safety measures that have been put into place so far.
“We’re trying to keep everyone safe, the public safe, the council members and staff safe,” he said. “I feel good about the setup. Our staff has done a great job.”