Philadelphia City Council says no to live meetings, will return virtually next week

To guard against the coronavirus’ delta variant force, the council will resume virtual hearings starting Sept. 17.

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Philadelphia City Council will resume sessions next week, but will not physically go back to the council chambers.

An email to councilmembers from Council President Darrell Clarke, a copy of which was obtained by WHYY News, says the decision to stay virtual came because of the “very dangerous delta variant of COVID-19, which has compelled many governments and businesses to reverse their plans for reopening.”

The email goes on to say the delta variant “represents an ongoing and unpredictable threat to public health whether vaccinated or not.”

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Clarke said they didn’t want to put plastic shielding between the council desks, which are bolted to the floor, in order to have a live session. The hard-wired microphone system also would have to be reconfigured into a wireless system, which is currently being done, he said.

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Clarke added that there “isn’t very good air circulation in the room,” which will have to be rectified.

“Ideally, we would hope in a couple of weeks” to return to in-person council sessions, said Clarke. He noted that he didn’t want to start live and then have to go virtual, with the potential of having to quarantine the entire council if one member or staffer were to be infected with the coronavirus.

“We’re looking to have a screen, a visual for people doing public comment,” said Clarke, instead of having public comment only via telephone.

The entire council and its staff are 100% vaccinated, Clarke said, but there have been breakthrough infections because of the delta variant, and they don’t want to take a chance.

Virtual sessions have been “working quite well,” said Clarke, though there are some drawbacks, such as managing legislation that is being discussed. “It’s a lot more challenging to do that in a remote setting,” he noted.

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“We, like everyone else, would like to get back to some sense of normalcy,” said Clarke.  He added that the camaraderie of being in the council chambers makes a difference.

The pre-council caucus could “turn into a super-spreader event, so that would not be possible” anytime soon, Clarke said. “We will do the best we can with what we have at this point, but we are going to go virtual for now.”

Procedures outlined in the email say that there will be no restrictions on the type of legislation that can be introduced by councilmembers. The previous remote council meetings required legislation to be pandemic-related. Public testimony will continue to be accepted remotely as part of the new plan.

“As conditions develop, we will reconsider the (remote session) decision, with the hope of returning to an in-person environment as soon as it makes medical sense,” Clarke says in the email

The first council session will be pushed back a day, from Thursday, Sept. 16, to Friday, Sept.  17, for Yom Kippur.

Clarke said a proposal is in the works for a policy to govern scheduling of council sessions that would fall on holidays other than official city or federal holidays.

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